Once a month, after nightfall, my wife keeps a secret appointment. Neither our neighbors, our friends, nor our children know where she goes, although our children sometimes wonder why she returns an hour or so later with her hair wet. Usually, my wife drives herself, but sometimes I drive her there. When I do, I never park and wait for her, it would be improper for a man to sit in the car outside. I leave and return a half-hour later to pick her up.
Once a month, my wife goes to the mikvah. In this way, she and I observe one of the most ancient and most misunderstood traditions in Judaism. For a week and a half before mikvah night, we avoid marital relations. We can relate as friends, partners and confidants, but not as lovers. On mikvah night we come back together as sexual parners.
My wife and I are not Orthodox Jews. In fact, we are Conservative Jews of a liberal bent. We pray in a synagogue where women participate equally with men, we intend to give our daughter the same Jewish education as our son and look forward to her reading from the Torah someday. Nevertheless, in our marital life, we have chosen to observe the ancient laws of mikvah, known euphemistically as Taharat Hamishpacha, "Family Purity".
On mikvah night my wife carefully bathes, washes her hair, removes all makeup, trims her nails, takes off her jewelry and prepares for the immersion. She prefers to do her preparations at home, although many women do them at the mikvah building. When she immerses herself in the mikvah, nothing must come between the water and her body.
The mikvah itself is in a modest building that contains a room for bathing and changing and a waiting room with several hair dryers. The mikvah (ritual bath) itself looks like a Jacuzzi at a health club. Regular tap water is piped in, but underneath the pool there is a connection to water that has been gathered naturally either froma spring or a cistern containing rainwater. Such naturally gathered water meets the religious requirement that a mikvah contain mayim chayim, "living waters".
Some Jews are surprised that our city contains a mikvah. Actually, every major Jewish population center and many minor centers have a mikvah. It is used for conversions of men and women, by brides before their wedding night, by some Orthodox men before Shabbat and Festivals, and by some observant families who immerse their new dishes. Yet the most important purpose of the mikvah is to enable married women to observe the traditional laws of Family Purity.
Here is a classical mitzvah for women directly tied to the cycle of their bodies.
On any one night, a variety of women will be at the mikvah. Most are Orthodox. Many keep their heads covered in public with a scarf, hat or wig. Some are definitely not Orthodox. Often there are women in jeans.
The mikvah attendant observes each woman as she immerses herself and as she says the traditional blessing and immerses herself twice more. The attendant's job is to ensure that the immersion is total, so that even the hair goes under water.
My wife has noticed that the mikvah attendant plays another role for many of these women. She is like a psychologist with whom they can share family problems and discuss community matters. They know she will never tell, for secrecy, modesty and discretion are absolute requirements of the job.
My wife and I have found a number of reasons for observing the laws of mikvah - philosophical, symbolic, feminist and traditional. These laws make a philosophical statement about sexual relations that needs to be made today. Our society wavers between ascetic and hedonistic views of sex. The ascetic view ties sex to sin and is embarrassed by sex. The hedonistic view, reacting to this, sees pleasure as the ideal, condoning any activity between consenting adults. Judaism rejects both these extremes. It teaches that sex is G-d's gift to humans and is therefore holy.
It is noteworthy that when one is tamei, ritually impure, one must avoid two holy experiences: entering the Holy Temple and having marital relations. Holiness is achieved by separation and self-discipline. Family purity laws teach us that sexual relations are neither a weakness to be tolerated nor a pleasure to be indulged, but a holy activity and a way of serving G-d.
The symbolic meaning of the mikvah was pointed out in a beautiful essay by Rachel Adler in The Jewish Catalog. A woman's monthly period is a nexus point between life and death. It is a brush with death; a potential child will not be born. The mikvah is a sign of life; the waters are called living waters. The potential begins anew for a baby to be born.
My wife and I felt this most strongly when we struggled with infertility. Each monthly period became a time of mourning and sadness. (It is interesting to note that Judaism outlaws sexual relations during mourning) On the other hand, the mikvah night became a time of hope, perhaps a child would be conceived this month. The mikvah lady would say goodbye to my wife with the words: "see you in nine months."
A rediscovery of the laws of the mikvah can be seen as part of the feminist agenda. It is one of three classical women's mitzvot. (The other two are lighting the Shabbat candles and separating some dough from the challah - in the days of the Holy Temple, this portion was given to the priests, today it is burned in the oven). Many women are searching for ways to actively express their Judaism. Here is a classical mitzvah for women directly tied to the cycle of their bodies.
The laws also make a statement about the relationship of a man and a woman. A couple is not permitted to treat each other as sexual objects. During part of the month, sex becomes off-limits, and there must be other ways for husband and wife to relate to one another.
While we may not understand the reasons, we observe them because we are Jews who want to maintain the traditions of our people. Sometimes those traditions are a struggle. Yet, I have found that the traditions that cause the greatest struggle can become the most precious to us.
The laws of mikvah as described in the Torah, refer to a time when Jewish worship involved offering sacrifices. The rules are part of a group of laws dealing with the concepts of tahor and tamei. These terms are usually mistranslated as "clean" and "unclean", giving the false impression that they refer to something physical. Actually, tahor means in a state of ritual purity, permitting one to enter the Holy Temple; tamei means ritually impure and unable to enter the Holy Temple.
Both men and wome could become either tahor or tamei. Ritual impurity could be caused by contact with a dead body or with various animals, by some skin diseases, and by either "natural" or "unnatural" flows from the body. The result of being tamei was to be separated from certain holy activities such as worship in the Holy Temple. Immersion in a mikvah was one way of becoming tahor. That these laws were integral to living Judaism in Temple times is dramatically shown by the kosher (properly built) mikvaot archaeologists have found at Masada, near the Temple Mount, and at other sites from those days. Yet with the destruction of the Second Temple, most of the laws fell by the wayside.
However, one law has remained part of Jewish practice until this day. The Torah teaches, "Do not come near a woman when she is tamei with her menstrual flow to uncover her nakedness". (Leviticus 18:19) The period of being tamei from a menstrual period lasted seven days (Leviticus 15:19). Such a woman is called a niddah. In the second century C.E., Rabbi Meir attemted to give an explanation for this law. "Why did the Torah teach that a woman was in a period of niddah for seven days?...So that she will be beloved by her husband as on the day she entered the chupah (wedding canopy) (Babylonian Talmud Niddah 31b). For my wife and myself there is some truth to this teaching; mikvah night has become a kind of monthly second honeymoon.
Many Jews can understand the possible benefit of a one-week separation each month, beginning with the woman's menstrual period. What makes the laws of Family Purity so difficult for modern Jews are two religious restrictions developed by the rabbis in the Talmudic period and observed by most Orthodox Jews today.
The first concern of the rabbis was the possibility of confusion in counting the days. There is another Torah law that states: "If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her period...when she becomes clean, she shall count seven days" (Leviticus 15:25-28). The rabbis were concerned that a woman might confuse such an "unnatural" flow of blood with her regular menstrual period and fail to count these seven "clean" days. They therefore ruled that in every case a woman must wait a full seven clean days before going to the mikvah. This served to nearly double the time of separation. (The rabbis ruled that one had to count a minimum of five days for menstruation before starting to count the seven clean days, adding up to a minimum separation of 12 days).
Because these laws are so strict, so private and so easy to misunderstand, it is no wonder that they fell out of practice among the overwhelming majority of Jews. The miracle is that so many Jews have continued to maintain them. Today, more communities are building mikvaot and the mikvaot are fancier than ever, perhaps reflecting the greater affluence of the Jewish community.
In a suburb of a major Jewish metropolitan area, a group of observant Jews recently wanted to build a mikvah. Another group of Jews tried to go to court to block the building. They claimed, among other things, that a mikvah in their neighborhood would cause traffic jams and other disruptions.
Would it were true! Nobody expects the great majority of Jews to return to using the mikvah. Yet a small group of Jewish men and women of all levels of observance are beginning to look seriously at these laws. Perhaps their observance can make sex more holy, perhaps it can strengthen marriages, perhaps it can be a path back to tradition. For these reasons alone, the laws of Family Purity deserve a second look by all serious Jews.