Marriage can often be equated to “taking the plunge” — but, another plunge has been on my mind leading up to our May wedding. As my fiance and I plan our Jewish ceremony, and a roadmap for our Jewish shared life, I also find myself revisiting the Jewish law that a bride should strip down and immerse in a mikvah just before her wedding.
In general, the mikvah is a pool of water that Jewish people use for a ritual to “purify” the “impure” (tumah and taharah). According to the Chafetz Chayim (Kuntress Ma’amarim v’Kol Korei p.26), a community must build a mikvah before even laying a brick of a synagogue. These natural-fed holy pools are the cornerstone of Jewish life. The most commonly discussed use case by rabbinic commentary of the mikvah: for women, after their periods, to become ritually “clean” or “pure” again.
“During a woman’s period, any ritual objects she touches becomes impure, and those she comes into contact with become impure as well,” explains Tirzah Meacham in the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Despite journeying toward more observance in college, I was deeply turned off by what I had heard about mikvah as it related to menstruation. I had zero interest in what sages, all men 2000+ years ago, had to say about the so-called “cleanliness” of women. How could my tradition use words like “impure” or “unclean” to describe a person's status due to menstruation — the organic rhythm of the very source of human life? How could Judaism so deeply miscategorize the power of a woman’s cycle? As if women’s bodies were not controlled and demonized enough!
When I learned about the process of determining when to go to the mikvah — including hefsek taharah, the practice of swabbing the vagina with a cloth and asking a rabbi or certified ritual advisor to evaluate whether one’s period had fully ended — I was enraged. My discovery of this highly invasive step of the process broke my interest in pursuing a more traditionally observant Jewish life, despite a rebbetzin's reassurance that the local rabbi would treat a bedikah cloth with the utmost privacy. I knew I never wanted anyone to have that kind of say over my body. I decided then that anything related to any laws of “family purity” nor mikvah visits would not be part of my Jewish practice.
And yet, I’ve always been drawn to water — who knows whether it’s my Pisces sign or just general human nature. Global cultures have had water rituals for all of recorded history. When I was living in Boston in my mid-twenties, I felt a gap in my spiritual and ritual connections. I called Mayyim Hayyim, one of the best known progressive mikvahs in the U.S., out of a potent curiosity in their programming. After speaking with a programming director, she recommended I consider joining the upcoming cohort of mikveh guide training. I wanted to know how this particular mikvah had allegedly transcended the contradictions I perceived, somehow meshing progressivism and inclusivity with adherence to halakha, Jewish law.
I asked to visit before committing to the training cohort and was able to shadow a guide for an evening and witness (with consent) an immersion. Unexpectedly and undeniably, while watching each plunge, I teared up, and I felt flooded by a sense of comfort and hope.
Since that first visit, I took Mayyim Hayyim’s course to become a mikvah guide, and I learned so much about how niddah (the state of separation) and mikvah are being reinvestigated and reframed around the world. With guest educator Rabbi Lila Kagedan, we investigated an ancient Talmudic text suggesting that women themselves were the ones who pushed for a more stringent observance of the time of separation, a time away from their husbands’ touch (Babylonian Talmud Niddah 66a). We heard the rare voice of women in ancient text — a glimpse of women’s ownership of ritual and bodily autonomy in an era where they were property of male keepers.
In my training, I learned to see niddah as part of a woman’s ownership of her body, her rhythm, and her identity. I learned to see mikvah as a powerful marker of transitions, not only in the womb cycle, but in anyone’s life cycle. I learned to see mikvah as a place to return to one’s most fundamental self — or be reborn into a new era of becoming oneself.
I’ve been to the mikvah dozens of times already. But I’ve never been in the mikvah. As a guide, I witnessed dozens of guests’ immersions. I would greet them at the door, invite them to a preparation space, and offer them optional resources to set their intention for the immersion. If they wanted someone to actively witness the immersion, I’d gently knock on the door between the prep room and the mikvah pool, ready to be their shomeret, their witness and attendant.
Wrapped in a sheet, the guest would walk to the edge of the water and unfurl the fabric into my hands. I stood at the edge of the pool, listening to their steps, and then, their splash as they descended beneath the surface. Peering slightly over the sheet, I would confirm they had completed the ritual fully, with their head to their toes fully submerged. I would jubilantly shout or gently whisper “kasher” to sanctify each immersion, matching the tone of the guest and the occasion. Under the cover of the night’s darkness, I welcomed each guest into our sacred space, and after their visit, I ushered them out, in the comfort of the night.
I’ve washed countless towels, cleaned threads of hair from the shower drains, and carefully covered the pools at the end of a dark, cold, Boston winter’s eve. I’ve hugged a tearful empty-nester marking her last child’s departure for college, helped converts say their first prayers as a Jew, and thanked the local chevra kadisha after their mikvah visits too. I’ve seen the mothers-of-many rushing in and out on a weeknight, doing a duty of taharat ha-mishpacha (the “laws of family purity”), as well as the other mamas who languish freely in the bath, and then the mikvah pool, savoring each elongated moment of uninterrupted quiet — a date night for themselves, all alone. Tending to the mikvah, I often thought of how the space was designed to tend to oneself lovingly.
The most joy I felt at the mikvah was always with visiting brides. In each of them, I saw reminders of my own friends, and I felt elated for them. Elated that they had found love, and elated that the mikvah could bring a moment of peace to mark the transition of becoming a wife. I had been to 25 weddings in the last few years, and would attend 25 more in the next few seasons — all before turning 30.
With each immersion, I also felt a flash of hope amid the trainwreck that was my mid-twenties romantic endeavoring. One day, just maybe, I’d meet my match, and only then, I’d be ready to immerse myself. In those moments at the mikvah, I decided to wait, wishfully and wistfully, for my marriage to lead me into the water myself.
When I go into the waters this May, maybe I won’t have a big spiritual kaboom reaction. Maybe I’ll sob and sob until my tears overflow the pool. Maybe I will be stressed by everything else going on. Maybe I will find sweet solace in the moment of intimate solitude. I long to find out.
There are a few intentions I am setting going in:
I will take my time.
I will honor my body.
I will honor my reaction.
And I will, finally, take the plunge.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
Why Some Jewish Women Go to the Mikveh Each Month, My Jewish Learning
Menstruation and "Family Purity" (Taharat Ha-Mishpacha), My Jewish Learning
Online Resources, Mayyim Hayyim
Female Purity (Niddah), The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, Jewish Women’s Archive
Hefsek Taharah, Nishmat's Women's Health & Halacha