Mikveh (or mikvah, plural: mikva’ot ) is a ritual bath designed for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. The word “mikveh”, 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.
Ancient mikvehs 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, mikvehs can be found in most communities in Orthodox Judaism, and Jewish funeral homes may have a mikveh for immersing a body during the purification procedure (tahara) before burial.
A mikveh must, according to the classical regulations, contain enough water to cover the entire body of an average-sized man; based on a mikveh 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 to which one seah is 14.3 litres, and therefore a mikveh 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 mikveh, then the addition of 3 or more pints of water from an unnatural source would render the mikveh unfit for use, regardless of whether water from a natural source was then added to make up 40 seahs from a natural source; a mikveh rendered unfit for use in this way would need to be completely drained away and refilled from scratch.
Historic reasons: Traditionally, the mikveh 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:
- after Keri — normal emissions of semen, whether from sexual activity, or from nocturnal emission;
- bathing in a mikveh due to Keri is known as tevilath Ezra (“the immersion of Ezra”)
- after Zav/Zavah — abnormal discharges of bodily fluids;
- after Tzaraath — certain skin condition(s).
- These are termed lepra in the Septuagint, and therefore traditionally translated into English as leprosy; this is probably a translation error, as the Greek term lepra mostly refers to psoriasis, and the Greek term for leprosy was elephas/elephantiasis;
- by anyone who came into contact with someone suffering from Zav/Zavah,
- or into contact with someone still in Niddah (normal menstruation), or who comes into contact with articles that have been used
- or sat upon by such persons.
- by Jewish priests when they are being consecrated
- by the Jewish high priest on Yom Kippur, after sending away the goat to Azazel, and by the man who leads away the goat
- by the Jewish priest who performed the Red Heifer ritual
- after contact with a corpse or grave, in addition to having the ashes of the Red Heifer ritual sprinkled upon them
- after eating meat from an animal that died naturally
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 mikveh 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:
- by Jewish women to achieve ritual purity after menstruation or childbirth
- by Jewish men to achieve ritual purity
- as part of a traditional procedure for conversion to Judaism
- for utensils used for food.
In Orthodox Judaism these regulations are adhered to, and consequently the mikveh is central to an Orthodox Jewish community, and they formally hold in Conservative Judaism as well.
The existence of a mikveh is considered so important in Orthodox Judaism, that an Orthodox community is required to construct a mikveh before building a synagogue.
The traditional rules regarding the construction of a mikveh are based on those specified in classical rabbinical literature. According to these rules, a mikveh 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 mikveh’s water supply. Similarly snow, ice and hail are allowed to act as the supply of water to a mikveh, 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.
Most contemporary mikvehs are indoor constructions, involving rain water collected from a cistern, and passed through a duct by gravity into an ordinary bathing pool; the mikveh can be heated, taking into account certain rules.
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 adheres to the classical regulations, and traditions, and consequently Orthodox Jewish women are obligated to immerse in a mikveh between Niddah and sexual relations with their husbands. This includes brides before their marriage, and married women after their menstruation period or childbirth.
In accordance with Orthodox rules concerning modesty, men and women are required to immerse in separate mikveh facilities in separate locations, or to use the mikveh at different designated times.
Converts to Orthodox Judaism, regardless of gender, are also required to immerse in a mikveh. It is customary for Orthodox Jews to immerse before Yom Kippur.
In the customs of certain Jewish communities, men also use a mikveh before Jewish holidays; the men in certain communities, especially hasidic and haredi groups, also practice immersion before each Shabbat, and some immerse in a mikveh 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 mikveh before being used for food, if they had been purchased from a non-Jew.
Obligatory immersion in Orthodox Judaism: Immersion in a mikveh is obligatory in contemporary Orthodox Jewish practice in the following circumstances:
- Following the niddah period after menstruation, prior to resuming marital relations
- Following the niddah period after childbirth, prior to resuming marital relations
- By a bride, before her wedding
- As part of a conversion to Judaism
- Immersion of utensils acquired from a gentile
- By a bridegroom, on the day of his wedding
- By a father, prior to the circumcision of his son
- By a kohen prior to a service in which he will recite the priestly blessing, according to the custom of some communities
- Before Yom Kippur, a widespread custom in Orthodox Judaism
- Before a Jewish holiday, according to the custom of some communities
- Weekly before Shabbat, under Hasidic and Haredi customs
- Every day, under Hasidic and some Haredi customs
Requirements during use of a mikveh: 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 mikveh used by women, there is usually an experienced attendant, commonly called the mikveh 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 some Black Jews take issue with this stance, particularly when it comes to dreadlocks. A number of rabbinical rulings argue in support of dreadlocks, on the basis that dreadlocks can sometimes be loose enough to become thoroughly saturated with water, particularly if the person had first showered
combing dreadlocked hair can be painful although a particularly cautious individual would consider a single knotted hair as an obstruction, in most cases hair is loose enough for water to pass through it, unless each hair is individually knotted
Allegorical uses of the term Mikveh: The word mikveh 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 mikveh is used in this sense, with the mikveh’s association with rain and “living water” being given a metaphorical purpose: O Hashem, the [mikveh] of Israel, all who forsake you will be ashamed … because they have forsaken Hashem, the fountain of living water Are there any of the worthless idols of the nations, that can cause rain? or can the heavens give showers? Is it not you, Hashem our G-d, and do we not [nikvah] for you? For you have made all these things.
In the Mishnah, following on from a discussion about Yom Kippur, immersion in a Mikveh 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 Mikveh of Israel, and argues that just as a mikveh purifies the contaminated, so does the holy one, blessed is he, purify Israel.