Mikvah (or mikveh) (plural: mikva'ot or mikves) is a ritual bath designed for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. The word "mikvah", as used in the Hebrew Bible, literally means a "collection" - generally, a collection of water.
Several biblical regulations specify that full immersion in water is required to regain ritual purity after ritually impure incidents have occurred. Most forms of impurity can be nullified through immersion in any natural collection of water. Some, such as a Zav, however require "living water, such as springs or groundwater wells. Living water has the further advantage of being able to purify even while flowing as opposed to rainwater which must be stationary in order to purify. The mikvah is designed to simplify this requirement, by providing a bathing facility that remains in ritual contact with a natural source of water.
Its main uses nowadays are:
In Orthodox Judaism these regulations are generally steadfastly adhered to, and consequently the mikvah is central to an Orthodox Jewish community, and they formally hold in Conservative Judaism as well. The existence of a mikvah is considered so important in Orthodox Judaism, that an Orthodox community is required to construct a mikvah before building a synagogue, and must go to the extreme of selling Torah scrolls or even a synagogue if necessary, to provide funding for the construction. However, Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism regard the biblical regulations about ritual purity as anachronistic to some degree, and consequently do not put much importance on the existence of a mikvah. Some opinions within Conservative Judaism have sought to retain the ritual requirements of a mikvah while recharacterizing the theological basis of the ritual in concepts other than ritual purity.
Ancient mikvahs dating from before the late first century can be found throughout the land of Israel as well as in historic communities of the Jewish diaspora. In modern times, mikvahs can be found in most communities in Orthodox Judaism, and Jewish funeral homes may have a mikvah for immersing a body during the purification procedure (tahara) before burial.
The traditional rules regarding the construction of a mikvah are based on those specified in classical rabbinical literature. According to these rules, a mikvah must be connected to a natural spring or well of naturally occurring water, and thus can be supplied by rivers and lakes which have natural springs as their source. A cistern filled by the rain is also permitted to act as a mikvah's water supply. Similarly snow, ice and hail are allowed to act as the supply of water to a mikvah, as long as it melts in a certain manner. A river that dries up on a regular basis cannot be used because it is presumably rainwater which cannot purify while flowing. Oceans for the most part have the status of natural springs.
A mikvah must, according to the classical regulations, contain enough water to cover the entire body of an average-sized man; based on a mikvah with the dimensions of 3 cubits long, 1 cubit wide, and 1 cubit deep, the necessary volume of water was estimated as being 40 seah of water. The exact volume referred to by a seah is debated, and classical rabbinical literature only specifies that it is enough to fit 144 eggs; most Orthodox Jews use the stringent ruling of the Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, according to which one seah is 14.3 litres, and therefore a mikvah must contain approximately 575 litres. This volume of water could be topped up with water from any source, but if there were less than 40 seahs of water in the mikvah, then the addition of 3 or more pints of water from an unnatural source would render the mikvah unfit for use, regardless of whether water from a natural source was then added to make up 40 seahs from a natural source; a mikvah rendered unfit for use in this way would need to be completely drained away and refilled from scratch.
There are also classical requirements for the manner in which the water can be stored and transported to the pool; the water must flow naturally to the mikvah from the source, which essentially means that it must be supplied by gravity or a natural pressure gradient, and the water cannot be pumped there by hand or carried. It was also forbidden for the water to pass through any vessel which could hold water within it, (however pipes open to the air at both ends are fine) as a result, tap water could not be used as the primary water source for a mikvah, although it can be used to top the water up to a suitable level. To avoid issues with these rules in large cities, various methods are employed to establish a valid mikvah, and tap water is made to flow over the top of this, and through a conduit into a larger pool.
Most contemporary mikvahs are indoor constructions, involving rain water collected from a cistern, and passed through a duct by gravity into an ordinary bathing pool; the mikvah can be heated, taking into account certain rules, often resulting in an environment not unlike a spa.
Traditionally, the mikvah was used by both men and women to regain ritual purity after various events, according to regulations laid down in the Torah and in classical rabbinical literature. The Torah requires full immersion
Classical rabbinical writers conflated the rules for zavah and niddah. It also became customary for priests to fully immerse themselves before Jewish holidays, and the laity of many communities subsequently adopted this practice. Additionally converts to Judaism are required to undergo full immersion in water.
R' Aryeh Kaplan in Waters of Life connects the laws of impurity to the narrative in the beginning of Genesis. According to Genesis, By eating of the fruit Adam and Eve had brought death into the world. Kaplan points out that most of the laws of impurity relate to some form of death (or in the case of Niddah the loss of a potential life). One who comes into contact with one of the forms of death must then immerse in water which is described in Genesis as flowing out of the Garden of Eden (the source of life) in order to cleanse oneself of this contact with death (and by extension of sin).
Orthodox Judaism generally adheres to the classical regulations, and traditions, and consequently Orthodox Jewish women are obligated to immerse in a mikvah between Niddah and resuming sexual relations with their husbands. In accordance with Orthodox rules concerning modesty, men and women are required to immerse in separate mikvah facilities in separate locations, or to use the mikvah at different designated times.
Converts to Orthodox Judaism, regardless of gender, are also required to immerse in a mikvah. All men are obliged by Orthodox Judaism to immerse before Yom Kippur, and women often do so as well. In the customs of certain Jewish communities, men also use a mikvah before Jewish holidays; the men in certain communities, especially hasidic and haredi groups, also practice immersion before each Shabbat, and some immerse in a mikvah every single day. Although the Temple Mount is treated by many Orthodox Jewish authorities as being forbidden territory, a small number of groups permit access, but require immersion before ascending the Mount as a precaution.
Orthodox Judaism requires that vessels and utensils must be immersed in a mikvah before being used for food, if they had been purchased from a non-Jew.
In a series of responsa on the subject of Niddah in December 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of Conservative Judaism reaffirmed a requirement that Conservative women use a mikvah monthly following the end of the niddah period following menstruation, while adapting certain leniencies including reducing the length of the period. The three responsa adapted permit a range of approaches from an opinion reaffirming the traditional ritual to an opinion declaring the concept of ritual purity does not apply outside the Temple in Jerusalem, proposing a new theological basis for the ritual, adapting new terminology including renaming the observances related to menstruation from taharat hamishpacha family purity to kedushat hamishpaha [family holiness] to reflect the view that the concept of ritual purity is no longer considered applicable, and adopting certain leniencies including reducing the length of the niddah period. . Isaac Klein's A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, a comprehensive guide frequently used within Conservative Judaism also addresses Conservative views on other uses of a mikvah, but because it predates the 2006 opinions it describes an approach more closely resembling the Orthodox one and does not address the leniencies and views those opinions reflected. Conservative Judaism does not require immersion during Jewish Holidays (including Yom Kippur), nor does it require immersion after Keri, nor the immersion of utensils purchased from non-Jews.
Although monthly immersion is formally required of Conservative Jewish women, the practice is not widely adhered to within the Conservative laity.
The classical requirement for full immersion was traditionally interpreted as requiring water to literally touch every part of the body, and for this reason all clothing, jewellery, and even bandages must be removed; in a contemporary mikvah used by women, there is usually an experienced attendant, commonly called the mikvah lady, to watch the immersion and ensure that the woman has been entirely covered in water.
According to rabbinical tradition, the hair counts as part of the body, and therefore water is required to touch all parts of it, thus meaning that braids cannot be worn during immersion; this has resulted in debate between the different ethnic groups within Judaism, about whether hair combing is necessary before immersion. The Ashkenazi community generally supports the view that hair must be combed straight so that there are no knots, but Black Jews take issue with this stance, particularly when it comes to dreadlocks, and Sephardic Jews generally have wiry curly hair, which is difficult to comb. A number of rabbinical rulings argue in support of dreadlocks, on the basis that
The word mikvah is from the same root as the word for "hope" and has allegorically been used to refer to a hope in Hashem. In the Book of Jeremiah, the word mikvah is used in this sense, with the mikvah's association with rain and "living water" being given a metaphorical purpose:
In the Mishnah, following on from a discussion about Yom Kippur, immersion in a Mikvah is compared by Rabbi Akiva with the relationship between G-d and Israel. Akiva refers to the description in the Book of Jeremiah of G-d as the Mikvah of Israel, and argues that just as a mikvah purifies the contaminated, so does the holy one, blessed is he, purify Israel.
A different allegory is used by many Jews adhering to a belief in resurrection as one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith. Since "living water" in a lifeless frozen state (as ice) is still likely to again become living water (after melting), it became customary in traditional Jewish bereavement rituals to read the seventh chapter of the Mikvaot tractate in the Mishnah, following a funeral; the Mikvaot tractate covers the laws of the mikvah, and the seventh chapter starts with a discussion of substances which can be used as valid water sources for a mikvah - snow, hail, frost, ice, salt, and pourable mud.
MIKVAH LADY GUIDES ANCIENT RITUAL BATHING EACH MONTH IN POOL OF RAINWATER SIGNIFIES, ABOVE ALL, SPIRITUAL PURIFICATION.(Local)
Oct 01, 2000; Byline: Jean Torkelson News Religion Writer The Mikvah lady rules. For thousands of years, women like Janice Fellner have...