Why a womens mikvah is an essential service

On March 25, 2020, emergency regulations in response to the novel corona virus went into effect. One of the clauses regarding permitted reasons to leave the house was for a woman to leave to use the ritual bath as long as they have made an appointment in advance and the ritual bath is operated according to the law. The purpose of this summary is to explain why this exception was made.

1. A Jewish women who observed the principles of Jewish Law in the area of such laws know as Taharat Hamishpacha or Laws of Family Purity, is required to immerse in a kosher ritual bath (mikveh) at the end of menstruation and postpartum bleeding.1 The mikveh has to be built and operated according to multiple halachic requirements and using a bathtub is not a viable halachic substitute. Without this immersion, a women and her husband are not permitted to have intimate relations. Jewish law even forbids any kind of affectionate touch between the couple before such immersion has taken place, as well as other proscribed behaviours that may lead to such affectionate touch. There are of course difference levels of observance of Jewish Law and there are those who will only refrain from sexual intercourse.

2. According to 2017 statistics of the Israel's Ministry of Religious Services, the average number of women who immerse in the mikveh on a monthly basis is 133,000 in about 700 ritual baths throughout the country. The immersing population is varied and includes women from all parts of the religious spectrum. The implications of not making an exception for mikveh immersion and such immersion was prohibited for these women, this would lead to increased stress in the house, reduce the community resilience and mental health and prossibly even lead to significant consequences such as family violence. Therefore, ritual bath immersion by women was define as an essential service. The is in contradistinction to mikveh immersion by men which is not essential, but rather a custom in some parts of the religious community as a sign of peity that is not connected to family life or marital intimacy.

3. There are many rumours and much fake news as if the rabbis had decreed that at this time there is no need to immerse after menstruation in order to permit sexual relations between a couple. Similarly, there have been rumors that other options are possible such as immersion in a home bathtub. Unlike work on the part of the Rabbinate which has found ways to find solutions for other issues of Jewish life to conform to the current emergency, there is no bases to these rumours and there is no substitute for immersion in a ritual bath. Other possibilities such as immersing at night in the ocean or lake are far more dangerous both for the woman and the community. Therefore, there is no other solution that use of a mikveh to allow marital relations for a couple who keeps to these religious principles.

4. The stipulation for the exception was established together with the authorities of the Public Health Service of Israel's Minister of Health regarding the safety of use of ritual baths at this time when there is a chance of infection with the novel corona virus. The limitation that was put in place was to prevent gatherings of people in one place which would increase the risk of disease spread. Therefore, on March 26, the Ministry of Health release a document related to emphases and recommendations to the upkeep and management of ritual baths at this time (dated March 19). These regulations included requirement a break of 15 minutes between those immersing. In this way, it is possible to assume maximum social isolation and to assure that the area is cleaned between users. A further emphasis is that the ritual bath be operated according to the laws and regulations of rituals baths that have been in force since 1999. These standards, which include appropriate water treatment with chlorine or bromine are considered to be sufficient to prevent the spread of viruses including SARS-CoV2.

5. In addition, the Ministry of Religious Services releases a number of documents that emphasize the regulations to the local Religious Councils who are responsible for the upkeep of these institutions. The Ministry of Religious Services has to date conducted two national Zoom meeting with mikveh attendants around the country to make sure the information is reaching the field.

6. It is important to point out two facts about women's mikveh immersion that are not known to all. According to Jewish law, prior to immersion, the woman much wash her entire body and assure removal of all forgein objects including dirt. She has to cut ker fingernails and clean around them, remove all make up and body creams and thoroughly comb her hair. This is in contradistinction to public pools, jacuzis or men's ritual baths where the degree of cleanliness prior to use is variable. Furthermore, in contradistinction to the pool jacuzi or men's ritual bath, women to nurse immerse together but rather one at a time.

7. In normal circumstances, most women due the preparation at the mikveh in shower/bath rooms in the mikveh building. Because of the possibility of the virus through hand contact with fomites in these preparation rooms, the Ministry of Religious Services has either closed such preparation rooms, instructing women to prepare at home, or instructed thorough cleaning between users. The mikveh attenants were given instructions to disinfects all areas around the immersion pool such as railing and door handles between users, to keep a distance of at least 2 meters (6 feet) from between women and between attendant and woman and not to have physical contact with the women they are attending to. In any case where touch is needed (such as assisting a women with physical disability), gloves are to be worn with handwashing upon their removal.

8. Therefore, the risk of infection in a mikveh is no greater that other public places. It would be do to having a number of people present in the same area, potentially allowing for the close contact needed for droplet spread. Therefore, the requirements of March 25, 2020 require the making of appointment for mikveh use such that there will not be more than two women present in the building or that they will be there for limited period of time and always at the required distance. Appointment making also assists in epidemiologic investigations if it is found retroactively that an infected woman has immersed.

9. Mikveh immersion generally takes place at night. In places where there are many women using the mikveh, there may be cases under the following cirucmstances that in order to allow 15 mintues between women, an exception is made to allow women to immerse during the day during the current emergency situation. Therefore, a woman who states that her reason to be out of her house is that she is going to the mikveh during the days should be assumed to be stating the truth.

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