The Meaning of Mikvah

The Meaning of Mikvah

I am young, British born and part of a large Jewish family. I work in advertising and have as many non-Jewish friends as Jewish friends. I've marched in protests and danced in discos, and I'm all for the Mikvah. I believe in the laws of the mikvah.

Why? Why should a modern, integrated young woman be so definite about this? Simple. I try. I try to be a positive Jew. I was born one.

I suppose I'm lucky because I always had questions answered when I was a child. There is nothing strange to me in any Jewish practice, because I was always told the why of everything. So, I've done a little re-reading and questioning. And here is my personal approach to the mikvah.

The word mikvah means a collection or a gathering of water - natural water. So the mikvah as we know it, is a specifically prepared pool of natural waters, constructed and maintained to definite requirements laid down by halacha (Jewish Law). These natural waters can be a freshwater spring or, under certain conditions, a river. Even the sea itself is a magniicent, super-sized mikvah which is permitted to use [ Ed.note: specific rules apply when using the sea].

There's nothing magical, mystical or unsavory about the mikvah. These days, the mikvah is like an indoor swimming pool complex, comprising several small private pools where complete privacy is assured. There are steps leading into each pool, there are handrails, tiled floors, towels and changing rooms - everything one would expect to find in a scrupulously clean place dedicated to purification.

Some very modern and grand mikvahs have their own hairdressing salons too. There is absolutely no record of any woman ever having drowned in a Mikvah! Joking apart - the Mikvah is a natural pool, set aside, consecrated and used for perfectly natural purification after a perfectly natural physical feminine function, menstruation.

Three mitzvahs (commandments) are singled out by halacha as observances to be especially cherished by women:

Candles:

The lighting and blessing of Sabbath and Holy Day candles, i.e. the observance in the home of the Sabbath and Holy Days - and with that observance the continuity of religious family life.

Challah:

The sanctification of the table through the observance of challah (braided loaves of bread) and other laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) which again, form part of the continuity of religious family life.

Mikvah:

The immersion of the body in a collection of natural waters as a purification, seven days after the end of a menstrual period. With that, the observance of purity in marriage, yet another aspect of the continuity of religious family life.

Immersion in the mikvah is not for the physical hygiene as such - one must be scrupulously clean before entering into the mikvah. The immersion is an act of purely spiritual meaning.  The first time a woman uses the mikvah is just before she becomes a bride.

Thereafter, she uses the mikvah at the end of each monthly period of niddah. Niddah is the time of the actual menstrual flow, plus seven clear days of physical and physiological recuperation  [ed. note: a woman retains the status of Niddah until proper immersion in a Mikvah has occured].  I think the Rabbis knew what they were doing when they interpreted niddah - they knew how menstruation affects a woman physically, physiologically and psycologically!

Sexual intercourse during niddah is forbidden. Effectively, this means a period of about twelve days [ed. note: at the minimum] of sexual abstinence. On the face of it, it seems almost inhuman to deprive a couple of the joys of intimacy for such a length of time, especially these days when complete togetherness in all forms seems to be too much the way of the world. Today, everyone takes everything and everyone else for granted. In too many marriages there is too much knowledge of each other (such a thing does not exist) and familiarity breeds not only contempt but perhaps what can be worse: boredom.

Sexual love is recognized by the Rabbis as the highest and most important love, and they have laid down rules and advice on conjugal conduct which even today' advanced sexologists cannot deny as being ideal. 

Leaving the physical act aside, mutual respect is one of the strongest foundations a marriage can be built on.  Mutual respect comes from caring. Indifference, as I have said, is the most deadly enemy of caring. Man was made from earth  - Adam from adamah (earth) - a lowly enough beginning.  All our teachings, all that the Rabbis have interpreted to us, encourage us to rise above the level of our instincts. In sexual behavior this rising above a low animal level is most important.

A certain restraint in sexual behavior is not, I think, in this context, an inhibition of nature.  It is a demonstration of human thoughtfulness, of caring. It is a fight against the indifference that undisciplined, over-familiarity or over-indulgence, breeds.

By purification, re-affirmation and renewal within the framework of the mitzvah called mikvah, marriage is seen to be the blessing it should be.

The bride goes to the mikvah shortly before her wedding. There, the mikvah represents not just a spiritual cleansing, but also symbolizes a new start. She is starting a new life, a married life. In the subsequent years of her married life, she has a new start every month.

Is it too starry-eyed of me to say that niddah, the period of sexual abstinence, can be a rewarding time - when husband and wife treat each other as proper people and not just bedfellows? I think not.

Is it merely rationalization on my part to say that when the Zealots, who held out against the Romans for so long in Masada, kept alive their faith and even had a mikvah in their mountain stronghold, have not we of today some sort of moral obligation to try also - to keep alive what their faith and the faith of millions of martyrs since, achieved? I think not.

Continuity of religious practice and faith is what kept Judaism alive. I'd challenge anyone to deny that. A chain of existence is what we live by, as Jews. Marriage, Jewish marriage, is the most precious link in that golden chain. Niddah and mikvah have helped forge that link in the chain. I say we should not, we dare not, break it.   


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