The Ritual Bath

The Ritual Bath

Not too many modern Jews are fully acquainted with the many rules and regulations set forth in Halacha (Code of Jewish Law). This is not to say that most of us do not have a peripheral knowledge of the code, which governs our faith.

It is with this in mind that I shall write about a Halachic law which applies to women (and sometimes men) which, although thought archaic by many, seems to be enjoying a renaissance, according to an article in the New York Times some time ago and just recently brought to my attention.

It is commanded in the Torah that evey Jewish wife purify herself following her menstrual period. Thus the birth of the Mikvah - The Ritual Bath.

For some unknown reason according to the Times, Jewish women have begun to return to the Mikvah. Rabbi Ralph Pelcovitz of Far Rockaway, NY said: "If people had been asked 50 or a 100 years ago, would the Mikvah survive, the vast majority would predict that it would go the way of the dinosaur. But not only is it still here, it is flourishing and growing."

The number of those attending cannot be documented, for attendance is considered so private a matter, that women go to the Mikvah only after sunset and records are never kept. Strangely, some women who are not even very observant, go faithfully to the Mikvah to perform this particular Halachic dictum. 

According to the Times, "Rabbis and Jewish scholars attribute the trend to a variety of factors. But mainly they agree that it is indivisible from the general intensification of Judaism in this country, also evident in the increasing number of day schools and Yeshivah's and the strengthening of Jewish education for young girls.

"Basically the code of family purity mandates that a couple refrain from all physical contact (even holding hands) from the onset of the wife's menstrual period (a minimum of five days) and continuing an additional seven days after the period has ceased. Then she is to bathe her body and hair throroughly, cut her finger and toe nails short so that they cannot have a vestige of dirt and remove all foreign objects such as make-up, jewelry and bandages.

"Finally, she must totally immerse herself three times in the Mikvah while reciting a special prayer. The Mikvah itself is built to rigid specifications, looks like a deep square bathtub with steps and contains water four feet deep from a natural source, such as rain. With immersion, the woman is considered spiritually purified and renewed."

Jewish scholars explain that ritual cleanliness has no connection with physical uncleanliness. The significance underlying the clearly delineated rules also resists easy explanation. It is said that the rite is intended to give G-d's sanctification to the physical relationship and to elevate the sexual act to a holy plane.

The Rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue said: "It offers a spiritual cleansing that says the body is holy, and it gives sanctity to the sexual relationship. The prohibition against sexual contact during the seven days after the menstruation was added in Talmudic law to make the man and woman more beloved to one another. The element of romantic love dies naturally with total accessibility."

A woman who is mentioned in the Times article who had only for a short time observed the Jewish ritual, said this about Mikvah:

"Sex has been elevated to something sanctified and during the time of physical separation, we have strengthened the other aspects of our relationship. Its benefits are unaccountable."

I spoke with a lovely young woman who uses the Mikvah. Her enthusiasm and delight in the sanctification of her body once a month was very beautiful.

The Baltimore Jewish Times recently ran a speacial wedding section and in it was an article by a young woman who discussed the pros and cons of the Mikvah.

She wrote: "But being compelled to be sexually separate from one's husband gives weight to several very positive notions:

a) That a woman's role in the marriage is not solely as a sex object and that there must be some other level to the relationship

b) That there is a need for the two members of the union to separate from each other and in turning away from one another, focus more on themselves and their individual growth

c) That it is permissible for a woman to relate to the cycles created by her body and that they have as much weight and reality as other outer imposed cycles..."

Judaism is indeed a wonderful religion. Whether we practice all of its concepts or not, we do become aware again and again of its many facets.

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