Naomi Malka contributed the following ritual. She lives in Washington D.C and runs the a progressive mikvah at Adas Israel Congregation. As the “mikvah lady,” Naomi holds space for the diverse needs of her community. Learn more about Naomi’s work at Adas Israel Mikvah and www.bodies-of-water.org.
Shavuot is a special time of renewal, a time when we renew our relationship to Judaism, the Torah, and the Divine each year. For many ritual practices on the Hebrew calendar, we celebrate this time of renewal by immersing in a mikvah, just as the Jews at Mount Sinai did for three days before receiving the Torah, by washing their bodies and clothes.
In Hebrew, the word tevilah means “dipping.” It refers to dipping pita in hummus (yum!), jumping in a lake (fun!), and the ritualized immersions in a mikvah (wow!). A mikvah is a sacred, ritual bath in the Jewish tradition. It’s one of the oldest and most important practices of this faith. Fun fact: every ancient building in Jerusalem has a little room at the bottom for a mikvah.
Traditionally, a Jewish community builds a mikvah and designates that space for conversion to the faith, making dishes kosher, preparing spiritually for Shabbat or holidays, and helping brides and grooms take their first steps toward the chuppah. Jewish people have practiced these types of immersions for centuries. In the last 20-30 years, many other immersion ceremonies have developed too, for those who are unmarried and for those who don’t identify as heterosexual. There are now liturgies and ceremonies for birthdays, anniversaries of times both joyous and sad, b’nai mitzvah, in/fertility cycles, healing, and mourning. Each time a creative Jewish soul links a mikvah to a lifecycle moment, a new ceremony is born. Every immersion marks some kind of transition, each person immersing to mark a shift out of a former state, connecting to the present, and turning towards some new future.
Unfortunately, throughout Jewish history, and even in some communities today, going to the mikvah can be an experience of body shaming and negativity. In many Jewish communities, only married women are allowed to immerse. That said, the mikvah can also be a source of body positivity and great blessing. Hopefully, you live in a city with a progressive mikvah where this is the case.
Tevilah — entering water in a ritualized way — is a powerful way to interact with this primal element, giving us an opportunity to experience the holiness of our own bodies, connecting to Jewish tradition and to God.
Whether you immerse in an indoor mikvah, or in an outdoor body of water, tevilah is tevilah. Know that the waters of every mikvah once fell as rain. Before that, they were clouds, fog, lakes and oceans. Earlier still, they ran in rivers from deep springs that bubbled up from inside the earth. Our ancestors told stories about water — the Creation of the World, the Flood, the Wells, the Red Sea, and many others — that we still tell today. Water is an essential part of life and a primary Jewish symbol. Every culture has its water ritual — think of Japanese bath houses, fountains for washing hands and feet before Muslim prayer, and Christian baptisms.
Tevilah is a uniquely Jewish way to experience a rare moment of peace in your relationship to your body, because the message of this ritual is that your body is holy. Whether it is small or large, well or ill, dark or light, old or young, partnered or sleeping alone, your body is your vehicle for moving through this world. What you do with it matters far more than how you look inside it!
You don’t have to go far out of your way to find a mikvah; any natural and flowing body of water is a mikvah. So if you’re hitting the beach this summer, jumping in a lake, or floating somewhere in the Dead Sea, you can perform a tevilah/mikvah ritual.
You don’t even have to take off your bathing suit!
If you can’t remember that, it’s okay! Or offer your own blessing for the ability to go in and out of the water safely. Remember what you are moving away from.