What is a Mikvèh?
A Mikvèh* is a collection or gathering of water, and fulfills an essential role in the religious life of the Jewish people.
According to Torah law (also called the “Law of Moses”) a person can become ritually ‘impure’. This ‘impurity’ does not suggest sinfulness and is most often not perceived as negative in itself. The most important consequence of such impurity was that being impure would (temporarily) disqualify someone from visiting the Temple in Jerusalem. It is generally assumed that the one of the main functions of such a concept was to instill a higher level of awe and respect to the person while entering the Temple and participating in its service.
There were several different levels of ritual impurity, depending on what had brought the impurity about, and related to these different levels, there were distinct rituals for removing the impurity. In some cases, for minor levels, the impurity would cease automatically at the end of the day. For others, only the washing of the person’s hands was required. In the most severe case, after touching a corpse, a highly complicated ritual was involved that lasted a week, for the impurity to be removed. In many cases however, the appropriate procedure was for a person to totally immerse him or herself in water.
Some Laws of Ritual Purity Perpetuated after the Destruction of the Temple:
After the destruction of the Temple, maintaining these practices had become less relevant. Therefore, in most cases, the rabbis of the Talmud decided to temporarily abolish them, until the time when, one day in the future, the Temple would be rebuilt. However a number of exceptions were made for cases in which the practice would continue. The ritual washing of hands in certain occasions, such as before eating bread is such an example in which purity laws were perpetuated. Other examples directly involve the topic of our article, the Mikvèh (which is a body of water that fulfills a number of prescribed conditions; more about that later).
These examples are: Firstly, the immersion of someone’s entire body at the occasion of his/her conversion to Judaism (which, as a side note, also explains the origin of Christian Baptism). Secondly, the practice to dip newly acquired metal and glass food utensils in such a body of water. And thirdly, the requirement for a menstruant woman to immerse herself after a period of separation from her husband, before she can resume intimate relations. Similarly such an immersion is required at the end of a period following giving birth.
Requirements for a Mikvèh:
Water, like people and many objects can become ritually impure. Under Torah law, however, there are two distinct conditions that can make a body of water immune from becoming impure
In other words, under two possible circumstances will water always be pure. According to rabbinic law, exactly such water is needed if one would immerses oneself for the purpose of purification. Only water which is inherently pure can be used for this specific ritual.
The first scenario involves rain water that has naturally gathered into a basin. However, the flow of the water into the basin must happen without any interruption, and there is a number of rather complicating additional conditions. One of them is that the rain water cannot flow through any metal pipes or through certain vessels. Also, once the rain water is gathered into the basin, it has to be still, i.e. it has to stop flowing. This limits certain bodies of water to be used as a Mikvèh. For instance, a river that is primarily fed by rain water is unfit for ritual immersion.
The second scenario involves water that flows uninterruptedly from an active spring. This involves a different set of prerequisites, which are generally less complicated. Most significantly, the water can be used even if it keeps flowing from the spring well.
The Mikvèh in Putti:
It is this second type of Mikvèh that is used by the community of Putti. The water flows from thespring into the Mikvèh basin and back out again (see below).
In the second illustration, one can see the actual water spring and the channel leading to the Putti Mikvèh.
The actual Mikvèh is made slightly removed from the spring itself, to create safer conditions for immersion as well as an environment of privacy by means of walled enclosure (as the immersion is typically performed without clothing).
The third illustration shows Putti’s actual Mikvèh:
Making use of a spring and flowing water offered the significant advantage that it doesn’t offer a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The alternative option for building a Mikvèh, namely with collected still-standing rain water, would instead have created a dangerous source of malaria.
In addition, in the way the Mikvèh was built in Putti, the water flowing out is now used to irrigate the crops on the land that feed the people!
The Minimal Amount of Water in a Mikvèh:
One thing we know is that there should be enough water to cover the entire body of an average person. According to some authorities, as long as a person’s whole body can be covered with water, then the Mikvèh is sufficient for him/her. The majority of the rabbis of the Talmud however held that the quantity of water has to be at least 40 se’ah. The question then immediately comes up: How much is a se’ah? Typically for most things Jewish, that is a matter of debate. It doesn’t really help to know that a se’ah is supposed to be the same size as 144 eggs… How big the average eggs in the time of the Talmud were, is another point of discussion. In short, the opinions on the minimal quantity of water in a “ritual bath” differ from 293.2 liter (77.5 gallons) to a much stricter opinion that quotes a minimal amount of 572 liter (151 gallons). Nowadays, as there is no maximum quantity of water, all Mikva’ot, (including the Putti Mikvèh), are built larger than the biggest quoted minimum, to accommodate all opinions.
The above mentioned immersion of new cooking utensils has a smaller minimum of water, but can be done in the same Mikvèh as well.
Other Types of Mikvèh:
Many of the world’s natural bodies of water, such as seas, oceans, spring-fed lakes, and spring-fed rivers are Mikva’ot as well, and can be used for purification purposes. Before the construction of the Putti Mikvèh, the members of the Putti community generally utilized a nearby river, which offered several hazards, such as the presence of parasites, water snakes and other creatures that live in the rivers.
When the Mikvèh is Used:
According to Jewish practice, immersing in a Mikvèh is required on a number of occasions.
1. Most importantly, a Jewish woman is required to immerse after a number of days following her menstruation. During this period she and her husband are not allowed to be together in an intimate way, until she immerses in the Mikvèh or, as we saw before in another valid body of water. Initially, according to Torah law and in most cases, this period of semi-separation lasted seven days in total, starting from the unset of her monthly period. As a result of a development that started in Talmudic times in Babylonia, the custom evolved into a counting of seven days starting from the end of the woman’s menstruation (often resulting in a total of about 12 days on average). This approach has become the general practice of virtually all observant Jewish communities.
2. As the practice of monthly immersion is only observed in the context of marital life, an unmarried woman does not visit the Mikvèh. Therefore, her first visit to the Mikvèh is typically on the night before her wedding.
3. The above described practice is also observed after a woman gives birth.
4. All Jewish converts, both men and women, immerse in a Mikvèh after they have been accepted by a Jewish court (a Beth Din). This immersion constitutes their entering into the Jewish people.
5. In all these occasions, the ritual of immersing oneself in a Mikvèh, is more than just a ritualistic or legalistic practice. Therefore, apart from the above described cases, there are other occasions for using a Mikvèh, which are voluntary and done for purely spiritual purposes.
As an example, some grooms visit the Mikvèh on the day before their wedding.
In addition, many Jewish men (and some women) visit a Mikvèh on the day before Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Others practice this custom even before other Jewish holidays, some every week before the start of Shabbat and few individuals go early every day before morning prayers.
As was alluded to before, there is a strong spiritual component to this practice. For one thing, a Mikvèh can be seen as representing the waters of creation, or/and a mother’s womb, while immersing and coming out of a Mikvèh symbolizes rebirth and spiritual renewal, or even resurrection.
Therefore, it is not surprising to find that a rather new application of the Mikvèh has emerged in our days, namely as a tool within certain post-trauma therapies.
Jews have been building Mikva’ot for thousands of years. In fact the Mikvèh is such an integral and essential part of Jewish practice that a Jewish community is required to make the building of a Mikvèh their highest priority. A community is required to build a Mikvèh, even before investing in a synagogue!
Here are some pictures of Mikva’ot from (a) Antiquity, from (b) the Middle Ages and from (c) Modern Times.
The Final Stage:
The building of the Mikvèh in Putti was made possible by generous contributions of donors like you and me. As a final stage we now need to plant trees around the Mikvèh, to provide shade and privacy for the people using it. In addition the outgoing Mikvèh water can be used for fruit trees that provide nutrition and vitamins. Efforts are made by the Putti Village Assistance Organization to raise money for this goal.
You can contribute to this lofty cause by donating $20 for a fruit tree, through the following link: http://puttivillage.org/donate. (All donations are tax deductible)