For a Jewish woman going to the mikvah is a private event. It is only between you, your husband and Hashem. Thus, the whole event is draped in secrecy.
Just like any secret society, most women never speak of their monthly trip to the mikvah. To help protect the identity of the mikvah goers, many mikva’ot houses have private parking in the back. In other cases, it’s not uncommon for a mikvah attendant to pick you up at your house under the cover of darkness.
Why all the secrecy? In the Jewish culture, a woman is to be humble and modest in all areas of her life. The communities are tight knit and there is virtually no privacy. Everyone seems to know what everyone else is doing or not doing. Be it good or bad, it is a reality.
Although everyone in the community knows that a woman uses the mikvah as part of her menses, no Jewish wife wants her neighbors to know she is attending on a particular night. Most women will go to great measures to keep her monthly trip a secret. This is not out of shame. In fact, the mikvah has no negative connotation attached to it. This tradition, and all it entails, is honored and cherished by many. It is practiced by the most conservative wives, those who identify with the Reformed movement, and even by some who don’t consider themselves religious at all.
The use of mikva’ot is grounded deep in the Jewish nation’s rich tradition. Used for many reasons by both male and female, oral tradition holds that mikva’ot have been used since the foundation of the world.
Mikva'ot of History
From the very beginning, we're told, the earth was covered with water. After all was created, there wasn’t rain. Rather the water came up from the earth. It's said that natural springs covered the Garden of Eden and flowed out of the garden through four great rivers. After the fall of man, when Adam was cast out of the Garden, he sat in one of these rivers and cried out to HaShem (the name for the Jewish deity), repenting for their sins. This was the first recorded time that water was used as a mikvah.
More than a pool for dipping after women’s menses, the mikvah is used by both women and men for a variety of spiritual reasons, most of which are rooted in the examples of our forefathers throughout the Tanach (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament). For instance, from Adam we learned that there is a connection between water and teshuva, return to HaShem, and repentance of sins. For the Jewish nation, the mikvah holds spiritual significance in many areas of life. Immersion into a mikvah is also used to mark life achievements. Those who convert to Judaism will dip in a mikvah as part of the conversion process, a bride will dip the night before her wedding, or a Jewish male will take his first dip the day of his bar mitzvah.
Jewish oral tradition holds that our patriarch, Sarah, had her own tent and mikvah for her ‘red days’. In addition, after crossing through the Red Sea, HaShem created what is now referred to as the ‘Well of Miriam’. This was a well and mikvah that was given in Miriam’s merit. It is said that three good Sheppard’s were given to the Jewish nation after leaving the captivity of Pharaoh. They were Moses, in whose merit the manna for food was given, Aaron, in whose merit seven clouds of glory guided the Jewish nation, and Mariam, in who’s merit a well was given.
The well of Miriam was not your average well. Rather, Miriam’s well traveled supernaturally with the Israelites through the desert. Up hills and down valleys, the well followed. When it came time to make camp, the well would appear where the tabernacle was to be set up. Miriam’s well continued with the Israelites’ up until her death, at which time Moses struck the rock to bring forth water. Another example of mikvah uses is at Mt. Sinai. At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites’ were instructed to purify themselves for three days and then dip in the mikvah prior to receiving the Torah.
Later in history, throughout the Promised Land, mikvah houses were built. If you have visited an ancient city in Israel, you are sure to have seen a mikvah. Archeology is revealing a large number of mikva’ot which were used during the First and Second Temple Period. These mikva’ot were built in simple structures and the pools were often single-person with only a few steps leading down into the water. In addition to public mikva’ot , some families had their own roof top or basement mikvah. An example of this is seen in Torah’s account of King David spying on Bathsheba while she dipped in her roof top mikvah. In addition, large elaborate pool systems have also been uncovered by archeologist.
One example of the larger mikva’ot houses is the pools of Bethesda. These pools were widely used during the Passover Holiday when all Jewish males are required to bring their sacrifice to the Temple Mount. Since submersion is required prior to ascending the Temple Mount, large pool systems were required for the masses of people visiting the Temple Mount.
After the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome in 70 CE, the Jews fled to different areas of the world and others were taken as slaves to Rome after the Jewish Nation was forbidden to live in Jerusalem. Soon after settling in Rome, the Roman ruler Claudius issued an order that Jews were no longer allowed to dip or bathe in the rivers. Therefore, bathhouses which often included a mikvah were built throughout Rome near the river banks where the water could be easily diverted to flow naturally through them. Ever since this time, submersion in a mikvah has been wrongly associated with bathing and physical cleanliness.
As the Jewish nation migrated to other parts of the world, mikva’ot were built in their communities. For instance Jews from Spain traveled with Columbus to Jamaica, as can be seen by the 15th century mikva'ot which were recently discovered.
Another example is in Bockie, Poland, where a Jewish community thrived during the 16th century. Although the mikvah building has long been abandoned and the roof has fallen in, it’s easy to see that the mikvah was evolving. The building had windows and was made from brick, unlike its predecessors during the 1st century which were made from clay. The submersion pools were lined with field stones carved to fit perfectly. It is obvious that these pools were made with great care.
Throughout Europe, remnants of thriving Jewish communities prior to World War II can be found below many businesses today. For instance at the Destille Restaurant in the eastern German town of Gorlitz, a mikvah now serves as a holding tank for the restaurant's carp in the building's basement. Though, for the most part, mikva’ot were designed for functionality, the elaborate ornate tile work of this mikvah makes it obvious that it was built with a bit of luxury in mind.
Everyone's Mikvah is Different
For a group of Jewish families to be considered a community, there must be a mikvah. Therefore, every mikvah is different, depending on the funding available, and the desires of the Rabbi. There’s no mandate for how the building should look; only the pool itself is mandated by Halacha (Jewish law). Therefore, the inside can be as elaborate or modest as the congregation and Rabbi determine. However, one thing is remains constant; the outside of the building or house is modest, and does not draw attention to its self.
Running a mikvah for the community is a costly endeavor and there are a lot of things to take into consideration. Maintenance to heaters and the filtration systems, toiletry supplies, and much more can quickly become a burden to the community. Therefore, most mikva’ot have a small modest charge. To alleviate the burden on the community, there is a growing movement to build mikva’ot which double as full-functioning spas. Designed to give the visitors a delectable pampering experience, and doubling as a public spa, this type of mikvah is self-sustaining. Of course, for families that are experiencing hardships, using the mikvah is always free of charge.
Each community will house and run their mikvah a bit differently. Some are in the Shul (a place of Jewish learning), or in the basement. Others are in a separate building. Communities may have only one pool and preparation room, while others may have several room and pools. The type of mikvah that a community has is what is required by the size of the community and what can be afforded.
With communities moving and fluctuating, new mikva’ot are built and others abandoned. At other times in history, the mikvah wasn’t seen as a focal point by the majority, and the practice all but faded away. At one point only sixty-nine mikva’ot were in use throughout the United States. Today, there is a growing movement to bring awareness to the beauty of this tradition. Many mikva’ot also serve as education centers and over three hundred can be found in the United States today. This movement is growing in popularity and today using the mikvah is appealing to women from all walks of life. Practiced by Hasidic wives, Orthodox wives, and Reformed women, this tradition is even practiced by those who don’t classify themselves as religious.
A dear friend of mine, Sarah, travels two hours by car to visit the Well Springs Mikvah. This mikvah is one of the most lavish immersion pools I’ve ever heard of. It’s truly a living sanctuary. With overhead gardens, a waterfall which brings warm water from four natural hot springs, dragon flies, and small fish, it sounds like Sarah steps into the Garden of Eden every month.
Preparing for her immersion is as luxurious as the immersion pool itself. There’s everything you could imagine or want, like jacuzzi tubs, waterfall showers, the finest toiletries, fluffy white robes and slippers, candles and incense. Taking her time to prepare, Sarah is completely pampered. Once ready, she calls the attendant and after a quick inspection, she is led down a wondering path surrounded by beautiful gardens and weeping cherry trees.
From the beginning of her experience, an atmosphere is created which prompts her to meditate and grow closer to HaShem. Sarah’s mikvah experiences are full of tranquility and she would never dream of attending another regularly.
My friend Miriam's mikvah dates back to 1946. It was built to be functional, not luxurious. There’s no Jacuzzi tub, no ornate tile, no basket of toiletries or fluffy robe. When Miriam prepares for her dip, she gets ready at home and carries along a bag containing her robe and slippers.
Miriam’s mikvah is located in her Shul, and the only parking is right out front. Since it’s possible for others to identify her by the family car, Miriam calls the ‘mikvah lady’ to pick her up under the cover of darkness.
When they arrive, she walks down a short hall to the modest bathroom which has a sink, toilet and shower. She takes a quick shower, brushes her hair, and rings the bell. Once she’s ready, Miriam follows the mikvah attendant to another small room with the pool. The lights are dim and the room is drab. Unfortunately, many times the filter or heater is broken.
For the most part, her experience is not a joyful one but rather a chore that she does out of love for HaShem and her family. She confided in me that each month it gets a bit harder for her attend, but the joy on the loving mikvah attendant’s face makes it a bit easier. There’s a saying common among Jewish women “the harder the tovil the greater the mitzvah”. To her this saying means, the harder the dip, the greater the connection to HaShem through fulfilling his commandments.
My Rabbi’s wife Bina lives in the Old Quarter of Jerusalem. I spoke with her to find out about her mikvah experience. With sixty-seven mikvah houses in the city, Bina’s mikvah is down the block and located inside of an old stone house that looks abandoned and run down.
The interior is simple, yet nice. Recently updated, most of the preparation rooms now have their own immersion pool. It’s very private and comfortable, without a lot of bells and whistles. The floors don’t have heated tile, and there is no basket of toiletries for her to pamper herself with. However, her experience is very relaxing and spiritual.
Although the water is often yellowish due to the limestone while they wait for the filtration system to also be updated, Bina loves her mikvah and would never dream of leaving. Hers is one of the oldest continuously running mikva’ot in the Old Quarter, and rather than go a few blocks away for a spa experience, she prefers to connect with her ancestors who used the mikvah before her.
“As I walk along the tile floor, I can feel my spirit joining those who have walked the halls before me. I feel like I’m truly part of the collective community and not alone,” says Bina. As we spoke, the love and peace in her voice brought tears to my eyes.
Connecting with our ancestors is one of the keys to why the Jewish communities and traditions have thrived for over five thousand years. Just as lighting Shabbat Candles has been passed down from mother to daughter since the days of our Patriarch Sarah, so has the mikvah been passed down with love and pride from generation to generation.
Regardless of the hardship or oppression, my ancestors have endured all to practice this ritual. As we dip into the living waters given to us by HaShem, we enter into a state where for a brief moment our nefesh (our soul, the holy breath of HaShem inside of us) joins our ancestors and collectively we come before HaShem. It’s a powerful and spiritual moment that may not be understood by some, but for most, this is a cherished moment shared between a Jewish woman and HaShem.