Why Immerse in the Mikveh?

Immersion in the mikveh (sometimes pronounced mikvah) actualizes the transition between the convert's old identity and his or her new one as a Jew.

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The water must originally have been transported to the mikveh in a manner resembling the natural flow of waters. The general practice is to build cement channels at the sides of the mikveh roof, which will enable rainwater to flow directly into the mikveh. Done right the first time, with the required initial amount of water, other piped waters may be added later in whatever quantities and at any time, and the mikveh will still retain its religious validity.

The waters must be stationary and not flow (not even the flow caused by a filter) while the mikveh is in use. The water, by all means, should be chlorinated to assure its meeting the highest standards of hygienic cleanliness. (While the chlorinated water may be somewhat discolored, it does have to retain natural water color.)

Water deriving from a natural spring is considered a valid mikveh if it complies with halakhic conditions. Also quite proper is immersing in the ocean, where there is no mikveh available, given the satisfaction of certain halakhic conditions.

Parameters of the Mikveh Experience

The ceremony must take place on a weekday [and not on Shabbat, the Sabbath] and during daylight, as do all other Jewish court procedures. In cases when a full circumcision has to be performed (unlike the touch of blood for previously circumcised males), enough time will have to elapse to be certain that the wound has healed completely.

The only assurance that the immersion will accord with halakhic requirements for a male convert is the presence of the rabbi at the mikveh; a female is to be accompanied by a person familiar with the practice, such as a rabbi's wife, the mikveh escort, or a very knowledgeable friend who herself uses the mikveh.

The body must be thoroughly cleansed immediately before the immersion. The convert should be careful that there are no adhesions such as bandages, Band-Aids, or ointment; that the hair is thoroughly brushed; the nails of the hands and feet are pared; and that no traces of cosmetics or nail polish remain. The whole body must be immersed at one time, not sequentially, and the submerging must be total, without even a single hair remaining above the water.

The Conversion Blessings and When They Are Recited

The blessing in the mikveh is as follows:

Barukh atah Ado-nai Elo-henu melekh ha'olam asher kideshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al ha'tevillah.

Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding the immersion.

Blessings over the performance of mitzvot [commandments] in Jewish life always take place before the action of the mitzvah. The reason for this is that it focuses the soul, raising the consciousness for the action to be undertaken, establishing the purpose of the mitzvah, and demonstrating that its origins are in God's command. Also, the blessing enhances the mitzvah by providing the reason for undertaking the symbolic action. Ritva [a medieval Talmud commentator] notes that, since the blessing is a statement of the soul, it should precede the statement made by the physical action of the body.

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.