The human body, according to Judaism, can attain lower or higher states of spiritual purity, and a Jewish man or woman should always seek to elevate that level. One means of doing so is through full-body immersion in water.
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One need only take a glance at certain chapters of the Bible to see that many of the commandments prescribe a specific cure for impurity: “ he/she should immerse himself/herself/his garments in water, and he/she/it will remain impure until the evening.” This formula is reiterated dozens of times in the Torah.
Initially, the Israelites were told to immerse in water, and in some cases, in “living water.” The rabbis of the late Hellenistic period (circa 1st century BCE) sought to institute norms for this purification rite. They defined “living water” as any permanent body of water, such as ocean, lake, river or stream, but a cistern directly fed by rainwater was also deemed acceptable. A mikveh – literally “collection” – that contains piped-in water is unfit for use.
Who is supposed to use the mikveh? In the days when the Temple still existed, this water purification rite was mainly used for eradicating the “death impurity”: if you had touched a corpse, or touched someone who had touched a corpse, there was a set procedure for purification. But in post-Temple times, there is no way to do so. Similarly, pilgrims to Jerusalem used to engage in the ritual immersion before walking up to the Temple. Without a Temple, this, too, has become anachronistic.
Nowadays, the main clientele for mikveh immersion are Orthodox or Conservative women who take a monthly dip following the end of their menstruation in accordance with the laws of “family purity,” as set down in the Talmudic tractate Niddah. The same applies for women who have given birth.
Most Jewish brides attend the mikveh on the eve of their wedding; in Sephardic circles in particular, this is often the occasion for a women’s party in honor of the bride.
Men also attend the mikveh – some Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish men go after having sexual relations, or even every Friday before Sabbath.
Immersion in a mikveh involves much more than attaining physical cleanliness. An individual must be entirely naked; even rings and earrings must be removed. Immersion must be full-body. Once completed, the proper blessing must be recited, with intent.
This is meant to be more than simply a device for reversing a state of impurity. It is a means of infusing the soul with spirituality. It is no wonder that mikveh immersion is the final requisite for converting to Judaism – a spiritual rebirthing. This use of the mikveh, for the conversion of both men and women, is common to every religious movement in Judaism.
Interestingly, archaeologists have found almost no mikveh installations from the biblical period. Most of those that have been found in Israel date to the 1st century BCE and later.
Perhaps the highest incidence of mikvehs per capita was unearthed at Qumran along the shore of the Dead Sea, the assumed home base of the ascetic Essene sect of Judaism in the Roman era. Nine mikvehs were found at Qumran, which were meant to serve a population that historians estimate at no more than 200. The Essenes were incredibly stringent on matters of purity and impurity. According to the sect’s literature (see the Dead Sea Scrolls), they would immerse twice daily.
The purist Essene sect may have had a profound effect on early Christianity and its own purification rites. Matthew 3 reports that John the Baptist was living an austere lifestyle in the Judean Desert near the Jordan River. John vilifies the Pharisees and Sadducees, and then baptizes Jesus and other Jews in the living waters of the Jordan. All of which indicates a smooth evolutionary transition from mikveh immersion in Judaism to baptism in early Christianity.
Given the primeval link between the basic elements of water, body and spirit, it is only natural that mystical Judaism latched onto the mikveh as a tool for spiritual expansion. The Kabbalah teaches that the living water can remove forces of negativity in the individual. The kabbalists of Tzfat would frequently immerse themselves in the cold spring waters of Rabbi Issac Luria’s mikveh as part of a meditative regimen, a practice that continues to this day.
The Talmud lists ten institutions that every good-sized Jewish community needs to have, such as synagogue, ritual slaughterer and mikveh. The latter is of primary importance, so much so that the rabbis decreed that a community should even sell its synagogue building in order to finance the construction of a mikveh.