Most religions, including the “big three” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), incorporate water as a means of ritually cleansing the body for religious practice. And in Judaism, the mikveh is a ritual bath filled with rain water used for a variety of purposes, including conversion, marital purity, immersing newly acquired utensils, and preparation of the body for burial.
Increasingly, progressive Jews use the mikveh to mark life events. According to Anita Diamant, writer and founder of Mayyim Hayyim, a progressive community mikveh outside Boston, “In the last generation, there has been an embrace of tradition by learned and learning Jewish women who have redefined mikveh, re-understood it in womanist and feminist terms.” For some progressive Jews, mikveh is a tradition and spiritual practice that can be used to heal from various trauma including sexual assault, chemotherapy, and divorce.
A utensil mikveh is a small and shallow bath, and is used mainly by Orthodox communities to abide by the strictures required in keeping a kosher home. Only utensils used in the kitchen require a dunk in the ritual bath — including dishes, pots and pans, and cutlery that are made of metal, glass or china. The ritual bath for utensils requires a short prayer and a removal of any stickers or wrappings that would prevent the utensil from fully immersing.
Perhaps the most well-known kind of mikveh is the women’s mikveh, since it is used for both conversions and family purity — a Jewish law that is observed within many Jewish communities. When a married woman gets her period, she is considered in niddah (ritually impure — a status that many women feel is negative toward women), and the couple abstains from sex. According to tradition, a woman waits seven days after her period, at which point she is allowed to dunk in the mikveh. After a dip in the mikveh, she is allowed to continue sexual relations with her husband.
Some men immerse in the mikveh everyday, in accordance with a minority opinion, derived from a Second Temple era rabbi, Ezra the Scribe, that a man should purify himself after a seminal emission before he learns Torah. But this custom was never taken upon by the majority of Jews.
Some Jewish men, and increasingly women, immerse in the mikveh on the eve of Yom Kippur.
The ritual bath is also used in preparing a body for burial. Members of the Chevra Kadisha — the group responsible for ritual burial preparation — will do a form of manual mikveh, pouring water over the body. Some members of the Chevra Kadisha will also go to the mikveh to purify themselves prior to performing the burial rites.
Most modern mikvehs have an attendant on staff to assist immersers, but since every mikveh abides by a different set of customs and level of strictness to the law, the presence of a “mikveh lady” has become controversial, with stories abounding of uncomfortable or invasive experiences.
40 — se’ah of water, which most contemporary interpretations translate to mean 150 gallons, as the minimum amount to fill a mikveh
28 - pluralistic mikvehs around the world, that are “interested in opening the ritual of mikveh to the full diversity of the Jewish people,” according to Mayyim Hayyim
978 — active mikvehs around the world that abide by Orthodox strictures, according to mikvah.org
600 — The oldest-known mikveh in Europe dates to the 5th century, when the Italian city of Syracuse was ruled by the Byzantine Empire
300 — the number of uses of a mikveh after which the water was changed, in the Lower East Side’s mikvehs at the turn of the 20th century. The New York City Board Department of Health shut down many of the city’s mikvehs upon discovering this.
The Back Story:
“So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan.” 2 Kings 5:14
The biblical source for mikveh is derived from verses dedicated to Jewish Temple rituals, and the idea of a mikveh as a vehicle of ritual purity is spoken about in greater detail in the Talmud.
These ritual baths have two requirements: That they be large enough to cover a human body, and that the water source be natural, i.e. connected to a natural spring or a well of collected rainwater. The first known ritual bath that was plastered and had steps during the Hasmonean period (the time period of the Hanukkah story), was around the first century B.C.E.
During the Middle Ages, mikvehs were constructed in the basements of the synagogues, with some of the oldest ones concentrated in Germany. The mikvehs of this period also doubled as bathhouses, since Jews were forbidden from bathing in the rivers with Christians.
The first Reform mikveh was built by Temple Israel, in West Bloomfield, Michigan, in 1995. In August 2018, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan announced that it is taking over the mikveh education project ImmerseNYC, the first JCC to encourage ritual immersion.
“When I close my eyes and go under the water, it’s silent and it’s warm and I feel really safe. Sometimes I feel like crying and I don’t know why.” — Mayim Bialik,writing in Kveller
Even Oprah Goes To The Mikveh:
What is a mikveh tribute without Oprah herself?