Mikveh: A Spiritual Preparation for Marriage

The mikveh, or ritual bath, signifies the spiritual rebirth of bride and groom as they ponder their approaching marriage.

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Excerpted with permission from The New Jewish Wedding (Simon & Schuster, Inc.).

For centuries the Jewish bride has immersed herself in a mikveh--a ritual bath--in preparation for her wedding. The bridal mikveh (sometimes pronounced mikvah) was a woman's first trip to a place that would be part of her life's rhythms for as long as she menstruated, and for traditional Jews mikveh remains a crucial part of married life [mikveh signifies that a woman and her husband are again allowed sexual contact, seven days after her menstrual flow ends].

 

Fundamentally, mikveh is not about "uncleanness" but about human encounters with the power of the holy. The Torah prescribes immersion not only for women after menstruation but also for men after seminal emissions. The scribe who works on a Torah scroll must immerse himself before writing God's name. All converts to Judaism are required to immerse themselves in the mikveh, marking their rebirth as members of the people of Israel. And some observant Jews--men and women--go to mikveh in preparation for Yom Kippur, when one has the opportunity to become "dead" to past sins and begin the year with a pure heart. There are Hasidim who make a practice of going to mikveh weekly in preparation for Shabbat.

According to the Talmud, the ultimate source of all water is the river that emerged from Eden. By immersing themselves in the mikveh, people participate in the wholeness of Eden and are reborn as pure as Adam and Eve. Mikveh also represents the physical source of life--the womb--from which humans enter the world untouched by sin.

For brides and grooms mikveh is a physical enactment of the passage from being unmarried to married. Entering the huppah [marriage canopy] is a public declaration of a change in status; entering the mikveh is a private transforming moment….

A mikveh is any body of mayim hayim, literally, "living water," running water as opposed to stagnant water. Ponds, lakes, rivers, and seas are natural mikvaot. For many, mikveh in a body of natural water is a more satisfying experience--spiritually, emotionally, and aesthetically--than mikveh indoors in what looks like a miniature swimming pool. However, weather or climate or family custom often discourages outdoor mikveh.

Photo: (c) 2001 Janice Rubin, The Mikvah Project

The act of mikveh is very simple, involving two or three immersions in water and one blessing. No rabbi or other religious "expert" of any kind is required. You enter the water nude, spread arms and legs apart, and immerse yourself so that every strand of hair is underwater. The eyes should not be shut tightly. You duck under, looking and feeling as much like a fetus in the womb as possible.

Upon rising from the water you repeat the blessing for immersion:

"Barukh ata Adonai Eloheynu Melekh Ha-olam asher kid'shanu, be-mitzvotav vitsivanu al ha'tevilah.

"Praised are you, Adonai, God of all creation, who sanctifies us with your commandments and commanded us concerning immersion."

Custom varies on the number of immersions: Two are common but three are also traditional since the word mikveh appears three times in the Torah. Other prayers may, of course, be added. For brides and grooms the most common addition is the Sheheheyanu, the blessing commemorating significant first events:

"Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheynu Melekh Ha-olam sheheheyanu vikiamanu vihigianu lazman hazeh.

"Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, .who kept us alive and preserved us and enabled us to reach this season."

Another blessing commonly recited at mikveh is the Yehi Ratzon, a prayer for the reestablishment of the Temple, a prayer envisioning a world as whole and pure as you hope to be upon emerging from mikveh:

"May it be Your will, Adonai, our God and God of our parents, that the Temple be speedily rebuilt in our days, and grant our portion in Your Torah. There we will serve You with awe as in days of old and as in ancient years. And may the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem be as pleasant to You as ever and as in ancient times."

Indoor mikvaot are maintained by Orthodox communities. (Your rabbi should be able to direct you to the nearest one.) Although brides are sometimes allowed to use them free of charge or for a very nominal amount, most mikvaot depend on fees for use of the facilities in order to survive. Ask about the fee (usually due in cash) when you call to make an appointment. (Men's hours are usually far more restricted, so grooms should call well in advance.)

Most mikvaot employ an attendant who is universally known as "the mikveh lady," and if you've never been to mikveh before, it's easy to be intimidated by her. It's important to remember that her function is not to judge but simply to assist one in the performance of a mitzvah. By and large, mikveh ladies ask no questions.

Although the immersions and blessings take only a few minutes, plan to spend an hour at the mikveh. You will be shown to a private bathroom, usually equipped with towels and perhaps even with disposable toothbrushes, kosher toothpaste, shampoo, and hair dryers. (When you call for an appointment, ask what you'll need to bring with you.)

The order of your ablutions is entirely up to you. Clean and trim finger- and toe-nails, clean ears, and floss and brush your teeth. Bathe in a hot tub. If the mikveh is not too crowded, soak and relax. Consider bringing some bubble bath and a facial mask. Then shower, shampoo your hair, and rinse thoroughly. Comb all the hair on your head and body in the same direction. There will be a towel or sheet for wrapping yourself before calling the mikveh lady.

She will lead you to the mikveh and inspect you to make sure you are ready to immerse. (This usually takes no more than a few seconds, and her businesslike demeanor precludes embarrassment.) She will then tell you to immerse yourself and will lead you through the blessings. If you know the prayers, you may be able to convince her that you know the procedure and don't need her supervision. Afterward you return to the bathroom to dress. And that's it. (Of course there are male attendants during men's hours.)

… Before you leave for mikveh take some time to think about what the ritual means to you.

Celebrating Mikveh

The Sephardic custom of turning mikveh into a joyful party has inspired new rituals and celebrations. These can be very simple, involving an intimate dinner for the bride or groom when she/he returns, or they can be as elaborate and creative as you like:

-… One groom gathered his closest friends at an ocean beach on the morning of his wedding. They sang and prayed as he plunged into the surf and recited the blessing. When he emerged from the water everyone sang the Sheheheyanu. Together, singing, they accompanied the groom to his room to prepare for the huppah [wedding ceremony].

-A bride took her three sisters to a nearby pond the night before her wedding. They held big towels as she immersed herself in the water and sang the blessing. When she emerged in the moonlight they took turns drying her, and each sister whispered a private wish for her happiness.

There are many ways to physically commemorate the entry of a bride or groom into a new stage in her/his life, observing the spirit, if not the letter, of the law:

-…The ritual washing of hands and feet has been an important Jewish symbol for generations. In Genesis, Abraham washed the feet of the three angels who visited him at his tent both as an act of welcome and as a token of his esteem. The daily mitzvah [commandment] of hand washing in the morning and before eating symbolizes the removal of impurity and renewed spiritual integrity. At one mikveh gathering for both the bride and groom, guests poured pure spring water over their hands. As each person poured, she/he offered a wish for the couple's future. The pitcher and bowl, bought especially for the occasion, were given to the couple as a wedding gift.

-In this spirit of "anointing," one wedding "queen" was seated on a special "throne," to which her closest women friends brought gifts of scent….

-Finally, a mikveh of song can be created for the pre-wedding purification of a sister or friend. A group of women arranged themselves in two lines. Humming softly, they raised their arms to form a kind of passageway between them. As the singing grew louder, and when she felt ready, the bride made her way slowly through this birth canal of sound. At the end of the passageway, which was also a bridge, she washed her face and hands from a bowl of water.

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.