A Jewish ritual bath, or mikveh (sometimes spelled mikvah), can be found in almost every Jewish community (you can search here for a traditional mikveh, or here for a non-Orthodox mikveh directory). In larger Jewish communities you might have a choice among mikvaot (plural for mikveh).
According to the classical regulations, a mikveh must contain enough water to cover the entire body of an average-sized man (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 4b). The rabbis calculate the necessary volume of water as being 40 seah (most contemporary authorities believe this is about 150 gallons). The rabbis also specified that a mikveh must be connected to a natural spring, or to a well of naturally occurring water–like rainwater.
If you’ve ever visited an ancient historical site in Israel, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a mikveh–or the remains of one. The picture to the right, for example, is an ancient mikveh at the popular tourist attraction Masada–the site of a Jewish fortress community from the first century CE.
Since the mikveh at Masada was far from any natural spring, it presumably functioned as a cistern for rain, and the Masada residents immersed therein. Though stagnant rainwater could hardly have been hygienic, this mikveh would still have met the legal requirements to purify; in Judaism, ritual purity and hygiene can be two very different categories.
Know What You’re Getting Into
But if you visit a contemporary mikveh, rest assured that mikveh architecture has come a long way in the past 2000 years. Today, systems for gathering water for mikvaot are much more complex–and much more hygienic.
Generally, a tank of rainwater is connected to a small pool that contains heated and treated (often chlorinated) tap water, much like a swimming pool. Since the tank and the pool are connected, the waters of the latter "acquire" the purifying quality of the rainwater in the tank. Nearly every contemporary mikveh has a filtration and disinfecting system.
When You Get There
From Mayyim Hayyim,
a progressive mikveh in Boston.
Jewish law requires that one immerse in a mikveh as part of the process of conversion to Judaism, and also that women immerse before getting married and when keeping the laws of niddah (menstrual purity). There are also various non-halakhic reasons that both men and women visit the mikveh.
When you arrive at the mikveh, if you are coming for one of the legally mandated reasons, you most likely will not go straight to the ritual bath. Instead, you will be assigned a private preparation room, essentially a large bathroom complete with a bathtub, shower, sink, and toilet. Before immersing in the mikveh, Jewish law requires that one thoroughly clean one’s body, typically including taking a bath or shower, clipping nails, and brushing teeth. This ensures that there are no barriers between the person immersing and the mikveh water. Some mikvaot provide shampoo, soap, combs, and toothbrushes. It’s best to ask before you visit so you know if you have to bring your own toiletries.
In an effort to cultivate an image of mikveh observance as relaxing and spa-like, many new mikvaot have lovely, even lavish preparation rooms. Some are equipped with jacuzzis, like the one at Mikvah Mei Menachem in Blue Ash, Ohio (right). You can take your time in the preparation room. Or, if you prefer, you can get ready at home and in the preparation room just take a quick shower before you immerse.
After your bath or shower, cover up with a towel or bathrobe (almost always provided). At most modern mikvaot, there is a bell to ring to alert a mikveh attendant when you are ready to dunk. Usually, the mikveh attendant will meet you at the back door of your preparation room–this door leads straight to the ritual bath. No one other than the mikveh attendant will see you when you walk from your preparation room to the mikveh itself.
The Big Dip
Before you enter the mikveh, the attendant may offer to check your hands, feet, or back for stray hairs or other potentially unwanted barriers that may get between you and the mikveh waters. If you are comfortable with this, you can accept the offer. But if you do not want to be checked, you usually do not have to.
Mikveh at the Chabad of Phoenix.
The mikveh attendant will take your towel or bathrobe and look away as you go down the stairs and enter the water. Though it can feel awkward or uncomfortable to be naked in front of a stranger, it may help to keep in mind that mikveh attendants attempt to be discrete and look at your body only once you are under water, ready to immerse your head. They are watching to check that every part of your hair and body is submerged, and they are also there to ensure your safety in the water.
The Sephardic custom is to recite the blessing first–"Blessed are You, God, who sanctified us with Your mitzvot, and commanded us regarding immersion"–and then submerge completely for a moment or two. Ashkenazic Jews usually submerge once, then recite the blessing, and then submerge either one or two more times. The mikveh blessing is the same for converts and for women before marriage and keeping niddah. Many mikvaot provide the text.
Barukh ata Adonai Elohenu melekh ha’olam asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha’tevillah.
Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us concerning the immersion.
בּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְשָׁנוּ בּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ עַל הַטְבִילָה
After you have blessed and immersed, if you like, you can spend some time in the mikveh for personal reflection or prayer.
As you come out of the water, the mikveh attendant will give you back your towel or bathrobe, and might give you a little blessing too–for a healthy marriage, or a happy life as a Jew, depending on the reason you immersed.
You can return to your preparation room and get dressed. On your way out, you may be asked to pay a fee (usually in the $18-$36 range, though it can be more for a conversion), or to make a donation, for maintenance of the mikveh.
Other Mikveh Uses
Beyond the halakhically mandated mikveh uses (for conversion and for women getting married and keeping niddah), the powerful symbolism of the mikveh waters has inspired various mikveh practices. For example, many Hasidic men immerse themselves in the mikveh every day. Others immerse every Friday before Shabbat. In some Jewish communities, it is also customary to immerse before Yom Kippur, and for grooms to immerse before their weddings.
These immersions, which do not require a blessing, might take place in a separate "men’s mikveh" large enough for ten or more to immerse simultaneously. Because of their non-required nature, most men’s mikvaot are more casual–some might not have a constant attendant, and most operate on a walk-in basis rather than scheduling in advance.
In recent years, some progressive Jews have also begun to use mikveh to mark various milestones, such as a graduation or an important birthday, and to signify a new start after pain or loss. For example, immersion can mark the completion of a year of bereavement, or recovery from divorce, rape, abuse, or life-threatening illness. Often new prayers are composed to accompany these new rituals.
Finally, another kind of mikveh in use today is the kelim mikveh–a mikveh for immersing dishes. Typically much smaller than a mikveh designed for human use, this kind of mikveh is often located in the same building as the main mikveh.