Image: Mikveh sign at the Congregation of Georgian Jews, a Georgian-Jewish Orthodox synagogue in Forest Hills, Queens, New York City. (By Bohemian Baltimore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The purpose of the mikveh is not physical cleanliness, although a properly maintained mikveh is always clean. The purpose is twofold: a ritual purification, and the physical experience of immersion in water as part of a ritual. For more about Jewish ritual purification, or taharah, see Clean and Unclean: A Primer. Taharah is an ancient concept that often feels awkward in modern life, especially since much of it is theoretical, since without a standing Temple in Jerusalem, true ritual purity is an impossibility.
A mikveh is a pool of water used for several different ritual purposes in Jewish life. Immersion (tevilah) in the mikveh is employed:
- For conversion
- For niddah, also called the laws of family purity
- For the purification of new cooking vessels
- As a spiritual practice before holidays (e.g., Shabbat or Yom Kippur)
- As a spiritual practice marking major life transitions
Without a mikveh, halakhic conversions cannot take place, adoptions are held up, Jews who observe the laws of niddah cannot have sex, new cooking pots cannot be used, and many of the spiritual needs of a Jewish community cannot be met. Mikva’ot (the plural) are essential to Jewish living, even though many less observant Jews go through their entire lives without ever visiting one.
For a more poetic, mystical view of the mikveh, see the next post: Mikveh Part 2: Mikveh as Metaphor.
Mikva’ot are complex and expensive to build and to maintain. Roughly speaking, a mikveh must contain enough water to allow immersion (tevilah) of an adult human being. A specific portion of that water must be mayyim hayyim (“living water”) meaning that it meets traditional standards for having come from a natural source such as rainwater or a natural body of water. (For specifics, the website mikveh.org offers lot of detailed information on mikveh construction.)
A natural body of water can also serve as a mikveh. An ocean or a lake can serve as a mikveh; a stream can serve as a kosher mikveh provided some technical standards are met. There are challenges to using a natural body of water for a mikveh including modesty, safety and comfort. Therefore Jewish communities worldwide have put a priority on constructing indoor mikva’ot that meet the ritual standards.
The mikveh below is an ancient natural spring water mikveh in Israel known as the Mikveh of Shemaya and Avtalyon, two sages of the 1st century BCE. According to the tradition Shemaya used to immerse in this mikveh. For more about Shemaya and Avtalyon, see Advice from our Uncles elsewhere on this blog.