Judi's Journal

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The Mikveh is a special ritual pool

By Judi Siegal

It is considered the source of life and here and Florida is a precious commodity even though we are surrounded on three sides by it. And while we welcome the life-giving moisture, the destructive forces of hurricanes are not a desirable guest in our midst.

The importance of water, with its metaphors and symbols figures prominently in religions. There are many examples of this in the Jewish faith starting with the Book of Genesis. Here we learn about the Garden of Eden and the river that flows out from the garden forming four branches: The Tigris, Euphrates, Gidhon and the Pishon. (Gen.2: 10-14) In a previous passage, we also learn about a spring that would rise up from the ground to nourish the land since God had not yet created rain. (Gen. 2:6) Later on there would be an over abundance of water, a flood, which would destroy all humankind due to the wickedness of the people. Only Noah, his family and animals that Noah brings onto his ark would be saved from the deluge. Many of the Psalms describe well-watered plants and trees as symbols of goodness and righteousness and God is referred to in the liturgy as the Fount of Life. Water was used for ritual and spiritual cleanliness in the days of the ancient Temple when all who wished to enter the Temple grounds needed to immerse in a special ritual pool called a mikveh. Today, the ritual pool is also used but for different purposes.

As with many of the ritual items used in Judaism, the mikveh has to meet specific specifications according to Jewish law. The bath must be built into the ground or in the structure of the building. It must hold a minimum of 200 gallons of water. There are seven steps, corresponding to the days of creation leading down to the water. The depth of the water should be so that when an average adult is standing, the water should reach 11inches above the waist so that one does not have to go through backbreaking contortions in order to immerse in the pool. The water should come from a natural source such as a spring or rainwater but other water may be added as needed to supplement the pool. While in use, the water must be stationary and not flow but can be chlorinated for sanitary purposes. When no mikveh is available, bathing in the ocean is allowed.

The person immersing in the mikveh takes a shower before entering the mikveh because the purpose of the mikveh is a spiritual one, not for bathing for hygienic purposes. All nail polish, ointments, band-aids, rings, cosmetics are removed, hair is brushed and nails on toes and hands are pared. A male or female attendant observes the immersion, depending on the gender of the person attending the mikveh, and proper blessings are said. The body is totally immersed with not even a strand of hair floating on the surface.

The concept of bathing in water for spiritual purity has long been a tradition in Judaism. According to some rabbis, the idea started when the Israelites walked into the Red Sea in a leap of faith. Here they were transformed from a group of slaves into a free nation whose mission was to serve God. This idea of using a pool or body of water to symbolize a change of status in the life of a person is a powerful image for Jews.

The mikveh, or ritual bath, is mainly used today for lifecycle changes. Among Orthodox Jews, it is a mitzvah or commandment that requires a special blessing to be recited before immersion. Orthodox women visit the mikveh seven days after their menstrual period in order to resume marital relations with their husbands and brides immerse before their weddings in order to be spiritually pure.

Men also visit the mikveh. Many go before Shabbat (the Sabbath) or before holidays. For modesty sake, there are separate times for men and women.

Perhaps the most notable use of the mikveh is for the new convert of Judaism. After a proscribed routine of study and attendance at synagogue, the potential convert appears before a Beth Din (court of Jewish law) and professes his or her desire to join the Jewish people and then, in a final act before becoming a Jew, immerses into a mikveh, symbolizing new life as a Jew.

In light of modern times, the uses for the mikveh have taken on new meanings especially among the more liberal forms of Judaism. Women’s groups, in particular, have found new ways of making the mikveh relevant in the lives of modern women. Today there are ceremonies for menopause, becoming grandparents, being called to the Torah for the first time, finishing chemo, before and after surgery, and any time a person experiences a life-changing event. They use the mikveh to celebrate joy or to heal after times of sorrow. The mayim hayim, or living waters of a mikveh, mimic the waters that precede birth so symbolically the person experiences a “new life” as she emerges from the mikveh to embrace the new stage in her life.

Locally, there are mikvaot (plural of mikveh) in Gainesville and Orlando affording the Jews of this area the opportunity to participate in an ancient Jewish rite.