Everybody who knows anything about Jewish archaeology knows that there are three main architectural markers that indicate that a settlement was Jewish. One, of course, is an indentation on the doorpost for the mezuza. Another, obviously, is the existence of a synagogue. The third is the mikveh, the ritual bath. I know you have heard of these because you mentioned the discovery of one in the ancient Jewish quarter of Girona.
So what are these baths, what are they used for, and why are they literally the first thing a Jewish community builds–even before the synagogue?
What is a Mikveh?
The word “mikveh” (often spelled and pronounced “mikvah” in English, but “mikveh” is a more accurate transliteration) means “collection” or “gathering”. A mikveh is a collection of water from a natural source. This can be a naturally occurring “collection”, such as a spring, lake, sea or ocean; or, it can be an artificial “collection”, but this has to be done in a very specific way to maintain the water’s “natural” status. It must contain at least 750 liters of water (198 gallons).
Here is a video that explains in detail how a modern indoor mikveh is constructed.
What Is It Used For?
Well… now that we have no Temple, there are three main uses, which I will describe below. But back in the days of the Temple, immersion in a mikveh was in imperative part of the spiritual purification process required of anyone who visited or worked at the Temple.
What is Tahara (Ritual Purity)?
Let’s get this straight before we go on: the mikveh is indeed a “bath” that uses water, but when we use the concepts of purity (tahara) and impurity (tum’a), we are not talking about cleanliness. Tahara and tum’a are simply different spiritual states of being. Tum’a is a state that is associated with a variety of restrictions, depending on the type of the impurity. We know nothing about what it actually is or means, but it is often associated with death in some form. Tahara is its opposite. This is a vast subject in Jewish law, most of which is not currently relevant because the Temple does not currently exist and most of the matters pertaining to ritual purity have to do with Temple service. The only type of tum’a that is currently relevant and can be reversed by immersion in a mikveh, is niddah. We’ll get to that in a moment.
A Gateway to Another State of Being
So why is water required for this purification process? There is much to be said about the symbolism and spiritual significance of water, and it is not unique to Judaism. Christianity and Islam also use water for spiritual purification. (The differences between immersion in the mikveh and baptism will become clear over the course of the letter.) In Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book “The Waters of Eden”, he explains that all naturally occurring water in the world originated in the four rivers of the Garden of Eden that are mentioned in Genesis, and thus, natural water sources connect us physically to our spiritual source–the state of spiritual purity in which Adam and Eve existed before their sin. That sin is what brought the possibility of death into existence, and as I said, there is a connection between tum’a and death. So it makes sense for contact with the spiritual state of the Garden of Eden would be what would remove that influence from our bodies.
When we immerse in the mikveh, we must remove all physical barriers–dirt, stray hair, etc.–and immerse our entire bodies, so that we are completely surrounded by the water. The water can be likened in this way to amniotic fluid, and the mikveh to a spiritual womb–or grave. It is a gateway to another state of being. Thus encompassed in the water, we are “reborn” into a new spiritual state–the state of tahara.
Immersion of Vessels (Tevilat Keilim)
One of the uses of mikvaot today is the ritual immersion of vessels made of metal or glass that were produced by a non-Jew. The Torah (Numbers 31:21-23) commands us that when we want to use vessels made of various kinds of metals that were previously used by non-Jews to prepare or serve food, we must first immerse them in a mikveh. Our sages decided that glass must also be immersed because, like metal, it can be melded back together if it is broken. Clay or stone vessels do not require immersion.
Why does the Torah require this? The short answer is, as with everything to do with ritual purity, that we don’t know. I like to think of it as a way to physically dedicate the use of whatever vessel it is to be used for sacred purposes–feeding my children, cooking kosher food, preparing food to celebrate the holidays, etc. Yet another way to bring awareness of the Divine into the mundane.
This is not to be confused with kashering vessels. Immersion of vessels is a separate mitzvah.
Family Purity (Taharat HaMishpacha)
So what is niddah? Niddah is a state of tum’a that is brought on by menstruation. Remember how I said that tum’a is usually connected in some way to death? In this case, it’s not so much death, as the loss of potential for life. One might also find a connection between it and Eve’s curse, bringing us back to the connection between tahara and the waters of Eden.
The practical implication of this state of tum’a is just one thing: “You shall not come near to revealing the nakedness of a woman in her state of niddah.” (Leviticus 18:19) Meaning, sexual relations, and anything that might lead to them, are forbidden. The sages unanimously agree that this means any kind of physical contact between a woman in niddah and a man who is not a close family member (a parent, grandparent, or sibling)–especially not her husband.
Yes. This means that for around 12 days every month (5 minimum for menstruation+7 “clean” days–won’t get into how we reach those calculations here, it’s too complicated), I cannot hug my husband or hold his hand or even pat him on the back.
…And you thought it was horribly restrictive and frustrating that I can’t hug you. 😛
Remember when I told you I didn’t want to get into the technical explanation about that? So, here it is. 😛 The touch restriction applies to anyone to whom one is sexually prohibited–except close family members. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you, but this will: the prohibition against premarital sex is actually not from the Torah; it is purely rabbinical. But any sexually mature woman who has yet to immerse in a mikveh, as with most unmarried religious Jewish women, is niddah, and therefore the restriction applies. And a woman who is tehora, but married, is obviously prohibited to anyone except her husband. So. Yeah.
Yes, I know it feels like a huuuuuuge stretch to think of any kind of physical contact as “coming close” to sexual relations, especially in a platonic friendship, and we’ve had that conversation before. 😉 As you know, some halakhic authorities permit leniency in cases of touch that is clearly formal, such as shaking hands, and I tend to hold by that to avoid embarrassing people; but once you are friends, any kind of touch is inherently affectionate, and that’s halakhically off limits.
And yes, I know it sucks. Have an e-hug. 😉
Back to “family purity”. The fact is that in a healthy romantic relationship, there can be something really positive about this cycle of drawing apart and coming together again. Having limited time to be together can make you prioritize nurturing your physical relationship while it is permitted, and nurture the other aspects of your relationship while it is forbidden. Moreover, there is something in this period of “forbiddenness” that adds an aspect of yearning and desire. Niddah gives us an opportunity to long for each other. And that makes the eventual reunion that much sweeter and more meaningful and powerful.
…Aaaaand that’s all I’m going to say about that. 😛
ANYWAY. Where were we? Right, niddah. So once a woman completes her seven “clean” days, she must remove all physical barriers from her body and immerse in a mikveh. After she immerses, she is tehora, and she and her husband are permitted to each other again.
And that, as I’m sure you now understand, is why the mikveh is such a crucial part of any permanent Jewish community. 😉 The practice of family purity is one of “the Big Three” commandments that are central to observant Jewish life, and basically serve as a litmus test for whether one is halakhically observant or not. The other two are Shabbat and kashrut. Obviously, what goes on in other people’s bedrooms is absolutely none of anyone else’s business, so the latter two are generally how people identify each other as observant. I should also say that along the observant spectrum there are people who interpret “coming close to” more liberally, and don’t have a problem with non-sexual physical contact. While I still must say that unfortunately, I do not feel that this interpretation falls within the halakhic framework, I still consider these people to be observant. (In fact, I had one such person give you a hug for me recently, didn’t I? 😉 )
Conversion to Judaism
Immersion in the mikveh is the final step in the process of a halakhic conversion. Conversion to Judaism is another vast topic about which I know rather little. What I do know is that it is very difficult and involves months, if not years, of intensive study, as well as being “adopted” by a Jewish family and living within an observant community for a certain length of time. At the end of this process, the potential convert appears before a beit din, a panel of dayanim (judges) who test him or her on his or her knowledge of Jewish law. If the beit din decides that the person is knowledgeable enough and is truly committed to becoming a halakhically observant Jew, the convert then goes to the mikveh–the spiritual womb. S/he goes into the water as a non-Jew, and emerges “reborn” as a Jew.
This probably reminds you of baptism, and in some ways it is an apt comparison. In both cases, there is some kind of immersion in water that creates an irreversible spiritual change in the religious identity of that individual. The major difference is that you can be “accidentally” or forcibly baptized, and the baptism is still binding. (As you know, this created some fairly problematic situations in the past…) Jewish halakhic (Orthodox) conversion, however, is completely impossible if you do not have a sincere intention to become a Jew and stay a Jew. If, at the moment of immersion, the potential convert does not intend to be Jewish and observe the Torah, the immersion is completely meaningless. If, however, s/he was totally sincere at that moment, but the next day changes his/her mind and decides to be a Hindu, s/he is still a Jew–forever. Children can be converted, even as infants, but when they reach the age of halakhic responsibility (bar or bat mitzvah), they can protest the conversion; meaning, the conversion is conditional, depending on whether the child decides, once he or she is of age, to continue being Jewish. So Jewish conversion can only happen with intention and consent, and under the supervision of a beit din.
There are men (and non-Orthodox women) who immerse in the mikveh for spiritual or traditional reasons. While this is thought to be spiritually cleansing, particularly in Chassidic/Kabbalistic thought, it is not a Torah required immersion, so the whole “removal of barriers” is not required, and men may not recite the blessing for immersion as women do when immersing for niddah. Men will immerse before visiting the Temple Mount, and many men will make a point of immersing before Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement. Entry to come in its time. 😉 ).
…Well, I’m sure I’ve given you plenty to chew on there!