Mikveh Mysteries, Solved

By Philologos

Published January 16, 2008, issue of January 18, 2008.
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Forward reader Gertrude Frankel writes:

“I have been trying, since seeing the movie ‘Little Jerusalem’ (in which such a figure is a great help to a married woman whose husband has strayed), to find out what the name is for the female attendant in the mikvah. I have asked a rabbi, a Hebrew teacher, and others, and no one seems to know, although one humorist suggested ‘lifeguard.’ There must be either a Yiddish or a Hebrew answer.”

There is both a Yiddish and a Hebrew answer, and it isn’t “lifeguard.” In Yiddish, the female attendant in the mikveh, or ritual bathhouse, is known as a tukerin or tukerke — that is, an “immerser,” from tukn, “to immerse.” (Our English “to duck” is a close cognate of this verb.) This is because the most important of the tukerin’s duties, from a ritual point of view, is to make sure that a woman who comes to the mikveh for a purifying ablution after her menstrual period immerses her entire body in water. In the language of the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative code of Jewish law:

“When a woman bathes [in the mikveh], she must be accompanied by a Jewish female whose age is no less than twelve years and one day in order to make sure that not a single hair of her head is floating above the water.”

The tukerin’s job, in this respect, is to instruct the bather to immerse herself again if the first immersion is incomplete, not physically to push her under the water. On the contrary: Since every inch of the bather’s body is required to be in contact with the water, the tukerin’s hands must not be on her when she goes under. But for the same reason, it is also the tukerin’s responsibility to see to it that the bather has nothing coming between her and the water, such as rings, bandages, or even dirt beneath her fingernails and toenails. In the Eastern European shtetl, therefore, the tukerin was also a manicurist and pedicurist who trimmed and cleaned nails before immersion. And because she was alone with the bather during these grooming sessions, which could lead to heart-to-heart womanly talks, she sometimes ended up as a psychological counselor, as well. I would assume that this is the role she plays in the movie “Little Jerusalem,” which I have not seen.

In Hebrew, the tukerin is a balanit (bah-lah-NEET), the feminine form of balan, bathhouse keeper. Balan is a word that is found in early rabbinic literature and comes from Greek balaneus, which in turn is from balaneum, a “bath” or “bathing room.” The same words occur in Latin as balneator and balneum or balnea. (Their only English cognates are the little-used “balneal,” pertaining to baths or bathing, and “balneology,” medical “therapy involving baths.) The balan is known in Yiddish as the bedder, from bod, “bath.” In the shtetl, as in Greek and Roman times, the bedder or balan’s job was to manage the bathhouse building, which generally included, besides the mikveh, a public bath with hot water and a steam room used for washing by both men and women (usually on alternate days of the week). Few private houses had such luxuries.

You may have noticed that whereas Ms. Frankel spelled the Hebrew word for a ritual bath “mikvah,” I have spelled it “mikveh.” Both forms are common. Which is correct?

In American Jewish English, it would hardly seem to matter. In either case, one says “MIK-vuh” in accordance with the Eastern European pronunciation of Hebrew, with the final vowel having the value of the English indefinite article “a,” so that how one spells it is little more than a technicality.

This, however, is not the case in Israeli Hebrew. Here, the two spellings of the noun, both formed from the biblical verb (used only for water) le’hikavot, “to gather,” not only have different vowels but are pronounced differently, too, one being mik-VEH, with the “eh” like the “e” in “fetch,” and the other mik-VAH, with the “ah” like the “a” in “father.” Moreover, this difference has grammatical consequences. “Mikveh” is a masculine noun and takes a masculine adjective, while “mikvah” is feminine, so that, for example, “a large ritual bath” is mikveh gadol but mikvah g’dolah.

To complicate matters further, both forms are acceptable. “Mikveh” is the older form and is what one finds in the Mishnah and the Talmud, whereas “mikvah” is more common in later rabbinic literature, such as the Shulhan Arukh. And so, as a rule of thumb, linguistic purists tend to say “mikveh,” observant Israelis tend to say “mikvah” and many people, including most secular Israelis, prefer to fudge the issue by saying “MIK-veh,” resorting to the Eastern European pronunciation as do American Jews. And what happens, you ask, if they then have to qualify the word with an adjective? I can only say that they try not to. As far as they’re concerned, all “mikvehs” and all “mikvahs” are alike.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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