The Mikveh Mitzvah

By Varda Polak-Sahmphotojournalist, artist, author For the Jewish community, the High Holy Days are a time of personal reflection and … Continued

By Varda Polak-Sahm
photojournalist, artist, author

For the Jewish community, the High Holy Days are a time of personal reflection and atonement. For men, these Holy Days are an occasion to immerse in the Mikveh, the Jewish ritual bath, to purify their souls. Jewish women, both secular and Orthodox, do not immerse according to the Jewish cycle of the year, but according to the monthly cycle of their body. We, the women, are given our own time and place to literally cleanse off our impurities, awaken our feminine spirit and reconnect with God. This sacred place, the Mikveh ‘for women only’, is the place which I explore in my book The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh.

According to Orthodox rabbinic law, immersion in the mayyim hayyim, or living waters, removes the impurity left by menstruation and transforms the woman’s status from contaminated to pure. This is an essential element of Jewish existence. Before a synagogue is built, Jewish communities install a Mikveh. Without purification, Orthodox men cannot even touch their wives. Thus, without purification in the Mikveh, there is no future for the Jewish people.

Nobody can force Jews, in this case Jewish women, to observe the strict rules of the Halakha, the Jewish law. Yet in modern Israel, the Orthodox rabbis have a monopoly. Only they can perform weddings in the Jewish sector. Without a certificate attesting that the bride has immersed, there can be no marriage. Therefore every married Israeli woman, even the most secular, has entered the Mikveh at least once in her life.

I immersed twice, prior to my first wedding at the age of nineteen and twelve years later, before my second marriage. My first experience with the Mikveh was dreadful. I’d thought of the Mikveh as a repellent and dirty place where numerous women immerse in the same pool of water without the benefit of disinfectant, an idea I’d inherited from the Sephardic women of my family, who vigorously rejected the idea of monthly trips to the Mikveh but upheld the tradition of immersion before one’s wedding. However, in stark contrast to my first experience, my second immersion left a strong physical and emotional impact on me. I realized that the immersion is a woman’s private moment of communion with herself, with her body, and with the spark of the divine that resides within her.

This colossal dissonance between my two immersions piqued my curiosity. Studying folklore at the Hebrew University, I decided to research the virtually unknown world of Jewish women in their ritual purification bath. Over a 10-year period, I regularly visited the Mikveh, without immersing myself so as to maintain the researcher’s necessary distance.

I discovered an autonomous kingdom of women.

The Jewish laws, formulated exclusively by males, are implemented by their proxies, the “Balaniyot” who are in charge of the Mikveh. No male can ever set foot in this exclusive enclave of women. Over the generations, a women’s theology developed in the Mikveh, free of male supervision. Fertility rites are performed there in celebrations that combine prayer, dancing and song, as the aroma of piquant festive foods permeates the Mikveh.

Many women visiting the Mikveh are non-observant secular women. Besides using the Mikveh as an aphrodisiac, secular young Israeli women perpetuate the tradition of the ritual bath as part of their quest for spirituality, rediscovering their own femininity and reclaiming authority over their own bodies.

“The Mikveh has the power of an atomic bomb” says Miriam, the head Balanit. “The woman must immerse, yet only she decides if she will allow her husband to make love to her.” In Maimonides’ time, Jewish women in Egypt implemented their threatening power and engaged in a Lysistrata-style “strike.” They insisted on purifying themselves like the Karaites by pouring water without immersing. For four years, children were born in sin and the Rabbis desperately sought to rescue the Jewish community from the curse of extinction.

Today, women from Israel and the U.S. are reinventing the traditional Mikveh by reshaping the immersion experience. Israel’s new age style Mikveh centers resemble spas. Boston’s Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh allows brides and their groom to be present (while dressed) at the other’s immersion ceremony. They also call on women to purify themselves before the Holy Days and on any other occasion. These Mikvehs, and others like them, reflect the needs of their societies and offer an alternative to the Orthodox model of purification that is based solely on halakhic authority.

Read an excerpt of “The House of Secrets.”

Varda Polak-Sahm is author of the new book The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh.

  • ccnl1

    Before the followers of Orthodox Judaism take their annual/monthly baths to remove sin or whatever, they should consult with their Conservative Jewish brothers and sisters who consider such rituals as being historically and theologically flawed.

  • ccnl1

    When in LA, stop in one of the local synagogues and read the New Torah. Said Torah is discribed below. The mentioned Rabbi David Wolpe is a contributing On Faith panelist with a rather large following over on BeliefNet. New York TimesBy MICHAEL MASSING (NYT) Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation. Such startling propositions — the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years — have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity — until now. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called ”Etz Hayim” (”Tree of Life” in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine document. ”When I grew up in Brooklyn, congregants were not sophisticated about anything,” said Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of ”When Bad Things Happen to Good People” and a co-editor of the new book. ”Today, they are very sophisticated and well read about psychology, literature and history, but they are locked in a childish version of the Bible.” “The notion that the Bible is not literally true ”is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis,” observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to ”Etz Hayim.” But some congregants, he said, ”may not like the stark airing of it.” Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that ”virtually every modern archaeologist” agrees ”that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all.” The rabbi offered what he called a ”litany of disillusion” about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have ”found no trace of the tribes of Israel — not one shard of pottery.”

  • ccnl1

    For the rest of us, taking a hot shower once a day does wonders for removing all kinds of ills.

  • ccnl1

    As with Christian baptism for removing mythical original sin and the Catholic/Episcopalian conversion of bread and wine into flesh and blood, the Mikveh is now outdated and should be deleted from Jewish rituals.

  • ccnl1

    Again for the rest of us, taking a hot shower once a day does wonders for removing all kinds of ills.

  • Hallaluya

    Biblical ‘Water’ compared to ‘Secular’ H2O. Oye vay.

  • ccnl1

    As with Christian baptism for removing mythical original sin and the Catholic/Episcopalian conversion of bread and wine into flesh and blood, the Mikveh is now outdated and should be deleted from Jewish rituals.

  • dubya1938

    “As with Christian baptism for removing mythical original sin and the Catholic/Episcopalian conversion of bread and wine into flesh and blood, the Mikveh is now outdated and should be deleted from Jewish rituals.”…religion as a *whole* is outdated and should be deleted.

  • ccnl1

    Amen!!!

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    I need a cracker and wine, a glass of holy water, and maybe a fish (maybe), on roll, preferably.

  • houlyn

    Although the author does make the ritual seem beautiful and empowering for women, I think the premise of the whole ritual, that women are impure during menstruation, is offensive and oppresses women.Every stage of a woman’s or a man’s life is beautiful. Blood, semen, wrinkles, fat, bones… etc are all natural.

  • Beckola

    Amazing how women defend the tiny little space, the tiny little freedoms that their patriarchal religion allows them. They are so grateful to have a little place to take their unclean bodies. What rubbish this is; what sexist and outdated rubbish.

  • ccnl1

    Amen!!!

  • jack71

    dubya1938 said…religion as a *whole* is outdated and should be deleted.Does he believe government should pass a law “deleting” religion? That attitude suggests this is what he believes. No one is more controlling of others and wishing to deny freedom than those that wish to abolish religion.

  • maggots

    Why is it that religions come up with discriminatory rituals that apply only to women; Taking a mikvah, wear a shawl in church, wearing a headcovering or burqa whenever in public?They all eventually comes down to ancient tribal conventions invented by men to control their women. These practices are not God’s work.

  • compchiro

    ccnl1,”Before the followers of Orthodox Judaism take their annual/monthly baths to remove sin or whatever, they should consult with their Conservative Jewish brothers and sisters who consider such rituals as being historically and theologically flawed.”Why? I was raised in the Conservative movement, was very active in the religious life of several shuls and was a member of of it for most of my adult life ( I am now a secular Jew) and at no time did I, or any Rabbi I met or studied with either discount the Mikveh in general (just the impurity of menstruation but not the general ritual impurity issue) or insinuate that the Orthodox in any way shape or form had to consult them on this issue.

  • compchiro

    maggots,”Why is it that religions come up with discriminatory rituals that apply only to women; Taking a mikvah, wear a shawl in church, wearing a headcovering or burqa whenever in public?”If you actually knew anything about the mikveh you would not make such an uneduated comment. The author left out the male equivalent of the monthly mikveh for women. The idea in many communities that unless a man went to the mikveh each week that he too was unclean and could not engage in sex with his wife. That if a man had a wet dream (ejaculated in his sleep) that he was unclean had had to go to the mikveh. If he touched the dead the same rule applied. That if the went to funeral a person had to go to the mikveh.Do I personally think that those rules (or any any other religious rule in general) are of no value to me? YES. But that is MY view for ME, not my view for others. If other people find thier religous rituals useful, helpful or comforting for themsleves that is their right and as long as they do not force the on others it is no problem.

  • ravitchn

    Since Judaism is a fossil of an extincet Syriac-Magian civilization the Mikva fad is entirely appropriate.

  • abu_ibrahim

    O Mrs. Polak-Sahm, good article! Purity, you mention «ritual purification». Body, you say this is «woman’s private moment of communion with herself, with her body». Flavor, you write, «the aroma of piquant festive foods permeates the Mikveh». This sacred place for you, it has the spark of the Divine, it has Purity, Body and Flavor, thank you for telling the Net about this place!Unfriendly comments, so many unfriendly comments, ¿why so unfriendly? O Mrs. Polak-Sahm, do not feel bad, you are not alone, religious Christians, Professor Joseph Weiler writes about «Cristofobia», how Europeans are down on Christian religion. Religious Muslims, Americans make sport of religious Muslims. Religious Jews, see how the godless are unfriendly to religious Jews. «Though infidels flinch and skeptics sneer, We’ll keep religion flying here!» Many sales, may your book be blessed with many sales, your sisters, may your book convince many of your sisters to visit this sacred place which has Purity, Body and Flavor!

  • MichaelLittleBig

    I agree with maggots posting.Men created religion for control of others.I believe in God, but it is spelled Nature.

  • larmoecurl

    Sounds like more hoops women have to jump through at behest of the men who created these idiotic rituals.

  • yliberon

    A useless custom, a relic of ancient history? you enlightened, superior people make me sad.

  • Bellamia

    What happened to the liberal mantra “if it feels good, do it”? Why such intolerance from the doubters, if the participants say that it makes them feel good? Ritual washings make people feel special, and clean and healthy and close to God. In liberal speak, these rituals raise “self-esteem.” Why are non-believers so uptight and intolerant? Maybe they’d relax a bit if they’d participate some ritual spa experiences.

  • abu_ibrahim

    O Washington Post, ¿who came up with the link from your main Web page to Mrs. Varda Polak-Sahm’s good article? «The Mikveh Mitzvah», this is the title of her serious article. «Kingdom of Bathing Beauties», that is the name of the link from your main page, that is not a serious name, someone at your Webmaster’s cubicle is making mock of Mrs. Polak-Sahm’s article, ¿does Mrs. Polak-Sahm know that your Webmaster is referring to her sacred place of purification as a place for «Bathing Beauties»? Respect, how about some respect for the sacred?

  • abu_ibrahim

    «What happened to the liberal mantra “if it feels good, do it”? Why such intolerance from the doubters, if the participants say that it makes them feel good?»O Bellamia, ¿do you not know? Enlightened, superior people», they do not care how the participants feel, they think they know how the participants *should* feel, the participants in «the mikveh mitzvah», they will say it makes them feel good, but the enlightened, superior people, they will say that the participants have «false consciousness», that the participants do not know they have been «brain-laundered» by male-supremacy men.«Enlightened and superior people», it is not only at ritual bath that they sneer, they also sneer at women who cover their hair, the «French Enlightenment» President Sarkozy, he has told Muslim girl students, they cannot wear hijab head scarf in French schools. Girl students, they say they«Why are non-believers so uptight and intolerant? »O Bellamia, not all non-believers are uptight and intolerant. Respect, many non-believers have respect for belief, so believers must respect those non-believers. Intolerance, it is so bad, a great American movie maker made a whole movie about «Intolerance».

  • David Waters

    Abu,Appreciate your interest in On Faith. Just wanted you to know that I wrote the title ‘Bathing Beauties’ AFTER getting the author’s permission. She liked it and thought it captured the spirit and joy these women find in the ritual.David Waters

  • ravitchn

    These women could do themselves and everyone else a lot of good by getting out of their tepid bath (probably filthy by now) and go protest the fascistic policies of Bibi Netanyahu.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    ravitchnThese women could do themselves and everyone else a lot of good by getting out of their tepid bath (probably filthy by now) and go protest the fascistic policies of Bibi Netanyahu.And once the Catholics are out and about, perhaps, they might ask their Pope if he would release the Vatican’s nazi era archives.Just wondering….

  • ccnl1

    As with Christian baptism for removing mythical original sin and the Catholic/Episcopalian/Lutheran conversion of bread and wine into flesh and blood, the Mikveh is now outdated and should be deleted from Jewish rituals. It is time to cleanse our minds of childish superstitions!!!

  • compchiro

    ccnl1,”As with Christian baptism for removing mythical original sin and the Catholic/Episcopalian/Lutheran conversion of bread and wine into flesh and blood, the Mikveh is now outdated and should be deleted from Jewish rituals. It is time to cleanse our minds of childish superstitions!!!”As I have said in the past, I do not believe in gods or religions. That being said, if the rituals provide adherents with comfort and peace and do not harm them (or harm others, and no intelligent person could argue that going to the mikveh with an open mind [especially the way the author of the article discribed] harms them or others), then there is not reason that they should change them. Just because you or I think that they have not value for ourselves does not mean that we have any standing to tell them to stop doing something that serves a purpose for them To tell them to stop or to criticze it the way you have makes you look like the childish one, not them. There are many people out there who do believe in religions who do not try to convert or evangelize to others and have no problem with those who do not believe in deities (and some of them strongly defend our right to not believe). And some of them engage in the rituals that you mistakenly attack. Those rituals do not harm you so it is really none of your business whether they do them or not. And when you consider that, for many, the Mikveh does not represent removing “ritual impurities” but instead is part of a meditation process and helps them “clear out/clean out” the day to day garbage in their minds from the work week and helps them relax and become more contemplative (that is what it did for me when I was a practicing Jew) it actually serves a very good psychological purpose. Which is why the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism still utilize it. There are Reform and Conservative Mikvaim out there for that very purpose. It is called adaptation.

  • ccnl1

    An adaptation to reality:A private, daily, hot, pore-cleansing, soaking, bath while meditating about superstitious rituals!!

  • bloglady

    COMPCHIRO:Lately I’ve noticed there was alot of decent and outragous posts deleted here and other areas. But there is one post, still here, that brings out the Crux, Gist & the Reality of this subject in one simple line,”"Biblical ‘Water’ compared to ‘Secular’ H2O” Oh god” Staying clean is as equally as important as having enough H2O and Nutrients/food in the “Holy-Bathing-BODY’s, not only “Bathing-Beauties”Point: TAUTOLOGICALLY speaking; Secular awareness of the science of ‘H2O’ (‘HOH’)is not really the same as the Old and New testament descriptions of (the walking on or splitting of such) ‘water’ story. Includes the Hindu, Buddhists and Islamic ‘water’ and miracle stories. So People participate in ‘Organized’ Rituals, Prayers etc.., like doing the “MIKVEH” or consuming the “WAFFER” in efiggy etc.. by simply attending a Shule/Temple/Church/Mosque or Institution is because life without “Rituals”, which is form of ‘Tradition’, will be dull and boring. But to believe that a MAN or a WOMAN can acsually take the Secular’s idea or awareness of what ‘H2O’ [Scientifically] really is and then sell, for profit or use as a cure all such H2O turned into Biblical-water and thus calling it “HOLY” or “BLESSED” [having POWERS?] is beyond insanity. Opps, not Reality.Even god itself rejects such preposterous religious conjectures! MAN cannot walk on H2O, but maybe only the religious can walk on such [Holy?] ‘water.Consuming natural H2O and glorious food, in order to keep from disapearing, is the 1st priority for us newer ” NEW-SECULARISTS”. We don’t need a-Religion, of many, to tell us how and what reality or even ‘Morality’ is all about.We All have religion (Natural), but not the illusional ones (man-made) and if god has a name then it is unknown to us, never to any Rabbi or any Priest or Immam or Shaman etc.. The truth of god is in, not the EGO, but in the mind and not outside of it. And, unlike birth, a miracle in its own right; when each of our death inevitably comes, then and only then will one know or maybe not know if there is a “Personal God”

  • compchiro

    “An adaptation to reality: A private, daily, hot, pore-cleansing, soaking, bath while meditating about superstitious rituals!!”You make assumptions not in evidence. Not meditating about rituals at all. Simple meditative introspection. Something many atheists I know do. Also not daily. End of week stuff. Sort of like what some people do in a spa, steam bath, or sauna. Actually has medical benefit.

  • compchiro

    Bloglady,”But there is one post, still here, that brings out the Crux, Gist & the Reality of this subject in one simple line, “Biblical ‘Water’ compared to ‘Secular’ H2O” Oh god” “Actually I would argue that they are one in the same. “Secular awareness of the science of ‘H2O’ (‘HOH’)is not really the same as the Old and New testament descriptions of (the walking on or splitting of such) ‘water’ story.”The secular is fact while the scriptural is most like analogy or fantasy. “But to believe that a MAN or a WOMAN can acsually take the Secular’s idea or awareness of what ‘H2O’ [Scientifically] really is and then sell, for profit or use as a cure all such H2O turned into Biblical-water and thus calling it “HOLY” or “BLESSED” [having POWERS?] is beyond insanity. Opps, not Reality.”I was not speaking about “selling” anything or using it as a cure. Although placebos are used in medical science today with the recognition that the human mind is able to do a lot of internal healing, but that for some people it needs to be tricked into unlocking that ability. Which I would posit is exactly what happens with prayers, the mind is doing the healing but attributing it to a deity or the prayers of others. If that is what is needed for some people to trick their minds into doing the healing so be it. “Even god itself rejects such preposterous religious conjectures!”That which does not exist cannot reject things.”MAN cannot walk on H2O, but maybe only the religious can walk on such [Holy?] ‘water.”Theological tales, not really relevant to the idea of mikveh.”The truth of god is in, not the EGO, but in the mind and not outside of it.”"And, unlike birth, a miracle in its own right; when each of our death inevitably comes, then and only then will one know or maybe not know if there is a “Personal God” “Maybe but not something that I care about.

  • abu_ibrahim

    «MAN cannot walk on H2O,»O Bloglady, nowhere does Mrs. Polak-Sahm’s excellent article say that the ladies who take the «occasion to immerse in the Mikveh» ever walk on water. Purity, body, and flavor (of «piquant, festive foods»),«Consuming natural H2O and glorious food, in order to keep from disapearing, is the 1st priority for us newer NEW-SECULARISTS”. We don’t need a-Religion, of many, to tell us how and what reality or even ‘Morality’ is all about.»Glorious food, yes, we have food and food is good and so we will eat together! When we eat, it will be a treat, and so we will sing together! These «newer “NEW-SECULARISTS”», ¿who are they and how are they different from the older NEW-SECULARISTS and the newer NEO-CONSERVATIVES?«We All have religion (Natural), but not the illusional ones (man-made)»O Bloglady, keep your Natural religion, but as for me, Give me that old-time religion, it was good enough for Abraham, it was good enough for Ishmael, it was good enough for Moses, it was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for the Prophet (peace be upon him), and it’s good enough for me.

  • abu_ibrahim

    «First off, Most mikvaim are moving water and actually very clean.»Excellent postings, O Compchiro! This «moving water», ¿where does it move from, and where does it move to after the ladies are done achieving their «very good psychological purpose»? Is this «moving water» the same as the «living waters» that Mrs. Polak-Sahm writes about? The water bill, ¿who pays the bill for all this moving water? And these non-Orthodox Jewish «mikvaim», ¿how do they differ from the Orthodox Jewish «mikvaot» that Mrs. Polak-Sahm writes about in her book, «The House of Secrets: The Hidden World of the Mikveh»? Mrs. Polak-Sahm, she says about her mikvaot, «Fertility rites are performed there in celebrations that combine prayer, dancing and song». Does this happen, too, at the «mikvaim»?

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