There are so many reasons to love the mikveh (Jewish ritual bath). My love for mikveh inspired me to keep kosher, observe the Jewish Sabbath, and cover my hair as a married woman.
Here are a few of my personal favorite things about the mikveh:
1. Immersing into the Earth’s waters
Mikveh water must meet certain requirements of being naturally existing, as from a natural body of water or harvest from the rain. Any large enough body of naturally occurring water can be a mikveh. The ocean is the largest mikveh in the world. When a woman immerses in the mikveh, she is entering the womb of the feminine Earth, calledAdamah in Hebrew. She strikes a fetal position pose, and then is spiritually reborn upon exiting the waters.
“When we refer to G‑d’s presence within our world, giving life to all things, then She is the Shechinah,” writes Tzvi Freeman about why we don’t call G-d Mother.
“When we refer to G‑d’s transcendence beyond this world, we call Him The Holy One, blessed be He. G‑d does not change or have parts, G‑d forbid. Both are the same one and singular G‑d, just looking at that G‑d from different angles,” he writes.
G-d is female, G-d is male, and G-d is everything and can be interacted with and described from each of these aspects.
The feminine aspect of G-d, the Shehina is present and dwelling among us when Jews perform mitzvot (commandments), such as davening (praying) together, or learning Torah together. Freeman continues, The Holy One, Blessed Be He unites with the Shechinah when we accomplish mitzvot correctly, hence elevating spiritual harmony in the world. When a woman immerses in the holy waters of the mikveh, she is physically uniting with that feminine Shechinah and in fulfilling the mitzvah uniting the Shechinah with The Holy One, Blessed Be He.
The Shehina dwells in the wilderness where Creation is ever-abundant, and also dwelled in the Holy Temple which explains all the miracles that happened there. Through her immersion in the mikveh, the woman embodies this powerful, fertile life force that travels with her. Observance of the marital laws that include the mikveh brings the Creator into the relationship with the husband and wife, elevating their union.
2. Ancestral Customs for personal hygiene, social networks, and intimacy
Before a woman immerses in the mikveh, she must meticulously clean her body according to certain procedures, to ensure that nothing will obstruct any part of her body from being touched by the holy waters. She has been preparing for seven days since the end of her menstruation. The moments preceding and during immersion are guarded by a female attendant, a witness to help ensure that the woman is totally clean and totally immersed.
Mikveh is a basic element of living a Jewish life. According to Jewish law, building a mikveh takes precedence over building a house of worship.
Women are known to gather and spend time together on mikveh night before returning to their husbands. Bathing and the opportunity to connect with other women is guaranteed down time every month, guarded by the custom and engagement of the Jewish women in the local community.
I personally love knowing and practicing the hygienic customs of my ancestors! It’s not only about how we keep ourselves clean, it’s also about how we prepare ourselves for intimacy with our beloved. Generally speaking this monthly ritual for the married woman provides a rhythm of intimacy for husband and wife. Our own Jewish tradition has within it a structure for balance and renewal of healthy sexual intimacy.
3. Centrality of the woman’s rhythms
Not only does a woman learn to track her menstrual cycle according to the Hebrew lunar calendar and the traditional timing systems through the practice of mikveh, but the rhythm of her menses greatly impacts her relationship with her husband and family, and hence the womens’ cycles guide social dynamics in the community. It makes so much sense to have the women’s core rhythm, which is intrinsically connected and divinely balanced with the moon and the tides, be central to the Jewish calendar. I feel so proud that this woman-centered consciousness is embedded in the heritage of my Jewish ancestry.
The woman learns to track her menstrual cycles according to ancient calendar methods. She tracks her cycle dates in relationship to the lunar month, the Jewish calendar, and her internal rhythms. The ancient practice of tracking our cycle in this way is incredibly rooted and grounding, as is the traditional women’s celebration of Rosh Chodesh, each new month, ever since Sinai.
4. Spiritual Strength
I discovered traditional Yiddishkeit (Judaism) during my childbearing years, and then had the opportunity and great blessing to have relations and conceive children while involved with the holy mikveh. This action bestowed spiritual blessing on my children, as well as applied retroactively to any of my previous children and the generations of babies born since my grandmothers ceased using the mikveh. I know these things because they were passed to me through an unbroken oral tradition, a living practice that I accessed because I sought out people who maintain and guard these traditions.
As it is a carefully implemented mitzvah, I have had the privilege of using the mikveh in this way because I am a married Jewish woman married to a Jewish man. So many variables in my life could have been different. I feel totally blessed to have mikveh in my life.
5. Timeless Wisdom
A translation of the root of the Hebrew word mikveh is “place of hope.” Today, when humanity seems to be on the brink of both enlightenment and self-inflicted destruction, I am grateful to have this spiritual practice to arouse my sense of hope.
The Jewish understanding of gender, spirituality, and the earth offers a foundation for ecofeminist views on patriarchal wars and environmental degradation now and in the past. Women at the mikveh pray for fertility, peace, everything.
Understanding the mikveh and all that evolves around it provides me with a context for interacting with people of other faiths and traditions – people with whom we share the future of humanity. I understand how according to Jewish heritage women are revered. I know about how we eat, how we bathe, and how we value life.
We find in Judaism the acknowledgement of the Earth as female, and a connectivity between the women and the Shehina through the mikveh. According to the ancient teachings, the age of peace and the time of the redemption will arrive in the merit of the women.
Many people are dunking in the mikveh without an obligatory bracha (blessing) this week, to purify and cleanse the soul in preparation for the coming new year. Whether or not you take that plunge, May Hashem bless us all this year to grow in our spiritual maturity, unity, and love for one another in joy, success, and good health! Shana tova u’metukah!
Wendy Kenin is a Jewish ecofeminist and lives in Berkeley, CA. She is married and has four children. By day, she is the social strategist at UpStart Bay Area, an organization that specializes in community organizing through communications and teaching emerging Jewish organizations to maximize their impact using social media. By night, she is a doula and founder of Imeinu Birth Collective and blogs at Green Birth. Wendy tweets as @greendoula on birth, Judaism, peace, and social and environmental justice.
This piece was first published by Layda.org.