Meaningful Rituals: Mikveh

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be publishing several posts on meaningful rituals. Please read the initial post on rituals before reading the specific ideas for ways to incorporate a ritual into your ceremony. Although these are written for women getting married, they can be adapted or modified for men and for other transitions, like becoming a parent. And I’d love to hear about the meaningful rituals you incorporated into any of your life cycle transitions.

A mikvah is a ritual bath. According to Jewish law, a wife must attend the mikvah and purify herself every month at the end of her menstrual cycle before she can resume sexual connection with her husband. A woman’s first mikvah, which takes place just prior to her wedding, initiates her monthly immersions. As a ritual that honors transition, it is intended to cleanse her maiden identity before she is renewed as wife.

A traditional mikvah is usually connected to a synagogue and has several requirements. There are strict stipulations concerning the purity, source, and amounts of the water. The laws state that the person must enter the bath naked, with no jewelry, and that she must immerse herself without another’s help. There are specific prayers that are offered by the mikvah attendant, who also stands as witness and confirms that the person is completely covered by the water and that the water touches every part of the body, including between the fingers and toes and inside the eyes. As with most religious rituals, the rules are rigid and extensive.

In recent years, mikvah has been enjoying a resurgence among both Jews and non-Jews who have redefined the immersion to reflect their values. It is no longer seen as a religiously imposed ritual that women must abide by to cleanse themselves of impurities after their monthly cycle, but as a beautiful and feminine way to honor life transitions. As long as the immersion is in a body of “living” water—such as an ocean or river—it is considered a mikvah. Sasha shares her traditional and nontraditional mikvah experiences:

I’m Jewish by culture but I’m not religious. I rarely go to temple, and I celebrate the holidays in a secular way. But I’ve always been drawn to the concept of a mikvah. I went to my first mikvah after I had recovered from a long illness. I needed to cleanse myself of the experience and bring closure so I could open a new page. The mikvah I attended was connected to a reform synagogue and was open to nonmembers. I felt a little strange as the mikvah attendant was saying the Hebrew prayers, but I also felt held by an ancient and beautiful tradition. It was a transformational experience for me. I immersed myself, and when I emerged, I did feel a sense of renewal.

I felt a strong desire to enter a mikvah before my wedding, but this time I wanted my friends around me. We had gone away for a “bridal” weekend to a beautiful spot near a river. It was midsummer, hot, and we hiked our way to a secluded spot. Once there, we said some prayers about leaving this phase of life and entering the new phase, then we stripped down and jumped in! The water was cold, but it felt good, alive, and rejuvenating. As the sweat fell away, so did the skin of my singlehood. Again, I immersed myself, and again, I felt renewed.

Entering a mikvah is like returning to the womb and coming out reborn. Water is feminine in nature, and if you enter the mikvah with the intention of separation and renewal, you will feel held by the arms of the Great Mother as you tumble your way through the birth canal of your rite of passage. Water is also a purifier and carries strong spiritual cleansing properties. It is used in churches, synagogues, and native cultures worldwide to mark transitions.