In Josh Azouz's funny and touching play The Mikvah Project (playing 28 February – 28 March 2020), Eitan and Avi meet at the Mikvah to take part in the Jewish ritual of submerging in the water. But what is a mikvah?
The mikvah (pronounced MICKvuh, also spelled mikveh), is a Jewish ritual bath. Almost every Jewish community has at least one mikvah. In larger Jewish communities you might have a choice among mikva’ot (plural for mikvah).
Why immerse in the mikvah?
Jewish law requires that one immerses in a mikvah as part of the process of conversion to Judaism. It also requires women to immerse before getting married and when observing the laws of niddah (menstrual purity). There are also various other reasons — both traditional and modern — that people visit the mikvah.
Beyond the halakhically (Jewish law) mandated mikvah uses (for conversion and for women getting married and observing niddah), the powerful symbolism of the mikvah waters has inspired various mikvah practices. For example, many Hasidic men immerse themselves in the mikvah every day. Others immerse every Friday before Shabbat. In some Jewish communities, it is also customary to immerse before Yom Kippur, and for grooms to immerse before their weddings.
These immersions, which do not require a blessing, might take place in a separate “men’s mikvah” large enough for 10 or more to immerse simultaneously. Because of their non-required nature, most men’s mikva’ot are more casual — some might not have a constant attendant, and most operate on a walk-in basis rather than scheduling in advance.
In recent years, some progressive Jews have also begun to use mikvah to mark various milestones, such as a graduation, a bar or bat mitzvah or an important birthday, and to signify a new start after pain or loss. For example, immersion can mark the completion of a year of bereavement, or recovery from divorce, rape, abuse, or life-threatening illness. Often new prayers are composed to accompany these new rituals.
Finally, another kind of mikvah in use today is the kelim mikvah — a mikvah for immersing dishes, in order to make them kosher. Typically much smaller than a mikvah designed for human use, this kind of mikvah is often located in the same building as the main mikvah.
According to the classical regulations, a mikvah must contain enough water to cover the entire body of an average-sized man. The rabbis calculated the necessary volume of water as being 40 seah (most contemporary authorities believe this is about 150 gallons). The rabbis also specified that a mikvah must be connected to a natural spring, or to a well of naturally occurring water — like rainwater.
If you’ve ever visited an ancient historical site in Israel, such as the fortress Masada, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a mikvah — or the remains of one.
Since the mikvah at Masada was far from any natural spring, it presumably functioned as a cistern for rain, and the Masada residents immersed themselves in it. Though stagnant rainwater could hardly have been hygienic, this mikvah would still have met the legal requirements to purify; in Judaism, ritual purity and hygiene can be two very different categories.
The modern mikvah
If you visit an operating mikvah, rest assured that mikvah architecture has come a long way in the past 2,000 years. Today, systems for gathering water for mikva’ot are much more complex — and much more hygienic.
Generally, a tank of rainwater is connected to a small pool that contains heated and treated (often chlorinated) tap water, much like a swimming pool. Since the tank and the pool are connected, the waters of the latter “acquire” the purifying quality of the rainwater in the tank. Nearly every contemporary mikvah has a filtration and disinfecting system.
When you get there
When you arrive at the mikvah, if you are coming for one of the reasons mandated by Jewish law, you most likely will not go straight to the ritual bath. Instead, you will be assigned a private preparation room, essentially a large bathroom complete with a bathtub, shower, sink, and toilet. Before immersing in the mikvah, Jewish law requires that one thoroughly clean one’s body, typically including taking a bath or shower, clipping nails, and brushing teeth. This ensures that there are no barriers between the person immersing and the mikvah water. Some mikva’ot provide shampoo, soap, combs and toothbrushes.
In an effort to cultivate an image of mikvah observance as relaxing and spa-like, many new mikva’ot have lovely, even lavish, preparation rooms. Some are even equipped with jacuzzis. You can take your time in the preparation room.
At most modern mikva’ot, there is a bell to ring to alert a mikvah attendant when you are ready to submerge. Usually, the mikvah attendant will meet you at the back door of your preparation room — this door leads straight to the ritual bath. No one other than the mikvah attendant will see you when you walk from your preparation room to the mikvah itself.
Entering the mikvah
Before you enter the mikvah, the attendant may offer to check your hands, feet, or back for stray hairs or other potentially unwanted barriers that may get between you and the mikvah waters. If you are comfortable with this, you can accept the offer. But if you do not want to be checked, you usually do not have to.
The mikvah attendant will take your towel or bathrobe and look away as you go down the stairs and enter the water. Though it can feel awkward or uncomfortable to be naked in front of a stranger, it may help to keep in mind that mikvah attendants attempt to be discreet and look at your body only once you are under water, ready to immerse your head. They are watching to check that every part of your hair and body is submerged, and they are also there to ensure your safety in the water.
The Sephardic custom is to recite the blessing first and then submerge completely for a moment or two. Ashkenazic Jews usually submerge once, then recite the blessing, and then submerge either one or two more times. The mikvah blessing is the same for converts and for women before marriage and keeping niddah. Many mikva’ot provide the text.
“Barukh ata Adonai Elohenu melekh ha’olam asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha’tevillah”, translated as “Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us concerning the immersion.”
After you have blessed and immersed, if you like, you can spend some time in the mikvah for personal reflection or prayer.
As you come out of the water, the mikvah attendant will give you back your towel or bathrobe, and might give you a little blessing too — for a healthy marriage, or a happy life as a Jew, depending on the reason you immersed.
BY SHOSHANNA LOCKSHIN
Josh Azouz's play The Mikvah Project is playing 28 February – 28 March 2020.