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MIQVEH

MIQVEH . In Jewish tradition, a miqveh (plural miqvaʾot ) is a pool of water, either natural or constructed, used for ritual purification of persons and objects.

Biblical Period

Biblical texts concerning contraction of ritual impurity, such as Leviticus 15 (impurity from bodily emissions), Numbers 19 (impurity from contact with a corpse), and Numbers 31:2223 (impure objects), ordain that immersion in water is required to remove ritual uncleanness in some instances. However, biblical legislation does not specify the nature of the pool or the source or amount of the water in which ritual immersion is to take place, nor does the word miqveh appear in the Hebrew Bible in this context. It seems likely that immersion in the biblical period was generally restricted to priests who were required to be ritually pure before partaking of the freewill offerings (terumah ) given by the people.

Second Temple Period

The earliest archaeological remains of ritual bath installations date from the Hasmonaean period (second century bce), when concern for ritual immersion appears to have become a public matter, possibly under influence from Hellenism, with its strongly developed bathhouse culture. More than three hundred miqvaʾot dating from Hasmonaean times through the Roman period have been discovered in Judea and Galilee, half in the Jerusalem area; many were built beside agricultural installations (wine and olive presses) in both cities and villages, and others were constructed in the private dwellings of wealthy, often priestly, families. Hasmonaean ritual baths have been discovered in Jericho, Qumran, and Gezer, and it seems likely that some of the Roman period ritual baths were also in earlier use.

The most common use of such miqvaʾot in the Second Temple period was purification prior to entering the area of the Temple. Many miqvaʾot were located on the Temple Mount (over forty have been excavated south of the Double and Triple Gates), and the Temple itself contained pools for priests. A large number of valid miqvaʾot were also available to festival pilgrims in towns and villages around Jerusalem. Rabbinic sources indicate that the Jewish court (bet din ) supervised the construction, the validity, the measurements, and the cleanliness of the miqvaʾot that served these crowds of visitors to the Temple. Because stored rainwater was always a scarce commodity, water from caves, springs, and rivers was utilized whenever possible in building miqvaʾot.

Rabbinic Period

Miqvaʾot, the sixth tractate in the order Tohorot (purities) of the Mishnah (edited in the Land of Israel in the third century ce), discusses the characteristics of a valid miqveh, various ways of constructing a miqveh, and the nature and sources of the water necessary for a valid miqveh ; it also delineates what constitutes valid immersion. According to this tractate, a miqveh must be hewn out of rock or built into the ground; it must also be made watertight, usually with plaster, because any leakage invalidates it. A miqveh must contain a minimum of forty seʾah (approximately one hundred gallons) of free-flowing clean water, sufficient for full immersion either vertically or horizontally. Rain- or springwater is valid, as is water diverted from a river, lake, or ocean. Once a miqveh contains the minimum of at least forty seʾah of valid water, drawn water of any amount may be added. Similarly if an upper miqveh contains forty seʾah of valid water and drawn water is then added to it and at least forty seʾah flows into the lower pool, that lower pool is also a valid miqveh. Because water must not flow through metal vessels or other materials that are susceptible to ritual uncleanness, all pipes and other accessories are attached to the ground. The miqveh may not be emptied through a drain in the bottom; such a drain could allow leakage, and any drain plug would be regarded as an unacceptable vessel. A variety of construction methods based on these principles have developed over time.

Medieval Period

Miqvaʾot have been essential features of Jewish communities over the centuries. A recently discovered miqveh complex in the old Jewish quarter of Siracusa in Sicily probably dates from the sixth century ce and may be the oldest surviving ritual bathing area in Europe. Medieval miqvaʾot have been discovered at a number of other European sites, including Cologne (c. 1170), Speyer (c. 1200), London (c. 1200), and Friedberg (c. 1260). The miqveh in Worms (c. 1190), a subterranean building with Romanesque architectural elements, is typical: from an aboveground structure, nineteen steps descend to an entrance hall, and then another eleven steps descend to the miqveh. A similar medieval underground miqveh also exists in Cairo. In many instances the miqvaʾot of the Middle Ages also served as bathhouses because of orders from Christian rulers forbidding Jews to wash in rivers.

Miqveh Use Historically

Most biblical laws of ritual impurity lapsed with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ce, and since the rabbinic era the miqveh has been used most frequently by women who immerse prior to marriage, at a specified time in each menstrual cycle, and following the birth of children. Miqveh immersion is also obligatory according to halakhah (rabbinic legislation) as part of the ceremony of conversion to Judaism. Some Jewish groups have encouraged miqveh immersion for men on the eve of the Sabbath and festivals. The miqveh has also been used, in accordance with Numbers 31:2223, to immerse new metal and glass vessels and vessels purchased from non-Jews.

The requirements of miqveh immersion for women are detailed in rabbinic halakhah, particularly in the Talmudic tractate Niddah, which discusses the practical consequences of women's menstrual and nonmenstrual discharges. In this rabbinic legislation biblical ordinances are expanded into a complicated system of rules for avoiding not only sexual intercourse but any physical contact between husband and wife during the wife's menses and for an additional seven days following the cessation of flow. On the eighth "white day" the wife must immerse in the miqveh before marital relations may resume (interestingly, immersion following menstruation is not a biblical commandment). The rabbinic halakhah is concerned with preserving men from the ritual pollution that would follow from any contact with their ritually impure wives. However, procedures for calculating the interval of time when spousal contact is forbidden relies heavily on a woman's knowledge of the stages of her cycle. Fidelity to the rules of self-examination and expedient immersion as soon as legally possible comprise one of the three areas of ritual obligations specifically incumbent on women (together with separating a part of the dough used to make Sabbath loaves and kindling Sabbath lights). Jewish girls were traditionally taught to comply strictly and promptly with the regulations connected with the niddah (the menstruating woman). The process of immersion, which includes the recitation of a benediction, takes place only after the body has been thoroughly cleansed and must be complete; whereas one total immersion is sufficient according to the halakhah, three have become customary. Postmenstrual and postpartum women have usually visited the miqveh at night, often accompanied by other women.

Contemporary Miqveh Use

In the first half of the twentieth century female miqveh observance appears to have declined significantly in North America, even among nominally traditional families, despite Orthodox exhortation in sermons and written tracts on the spiritual and medical benefits of taharat hamishpahah (family purity regulations), as these laws came to be called. Factors militating against miqveh use included disaffection of Americanized children of immigrants with their parents' Old World ways, the success of liberal forms of organized Judaism (the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements) that did not advocate miqveh use, and the deterrent effect of ill-maintained and unhygienic miqvaʾot. Many Jewish feminist writers of the late twentieth century also condemned taharat hamishpahah regulations as archaic expressions of male anxiety about the biological processes of the female body that reinforced the predominant construction in rabbinic Judaism of women as other and lesser than men.

However, the 1980s and 1990s saw a resurgence in the numbers of Orthodox Jews and a new sympathy for various previously discarded practices of traditional Judaism in Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism. In this period positive new interpretations of miqveh immersion developed, accompanied by construction of attractive modern miqvaʾot in many Jewish communities. Contemporary Orthodox advocates of taharat hamishpahah regulations praised the ways in which they enhanced the sanctity of marriage and human sexuality, maintaining that traditional Judaism recognizes and values the fluctuating rhythms of human relationships by mandating a monthly separation between husband and wife when spousal communication and empathy must be enhanced in nonphysical ways. Supporters commended the elevating value of fulfilling a demanding divinely ordained mandate. They also praised the consciousness of the body and its functions that these rules impose on women and the feeling of personal renewal and rebirth following each immersion.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century miqveh immersion has became a symbolic expression of a new spiritual beginning for both women and men in all branches of Jewish practice beyond the domain of taharat hamishpahah. In addition to conversion to Judaism, rituals have developed that incorporate miqveh immersion as part of bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah (coming of age); before Jewish holidays; prior to marriage; in cases of miscarriage, infertility, and illness; and following divorce, sexual assault, or other life-altering events. An indication of the probable long-term impact of this trend is the increased construction of miqvaʾot by non-Orthodox Jewish communities.

See Also

Conversion; Purification, article on Purification in Judaism.

Bibliography

Adler, Rachel. "'In Your Blood, Live': Re-Visions of a Theology of Purity." In Lifecycles, vol. 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, edited by Debra Orenstein and Jane Rachel Litman, pp. 197206. Woodstock, Vt., 1997. Revisionist feminist response to Orthodox apologetics.

Baskin, Judith R. "Women and Ritual Immersion in Medieval Ashkenaz: The Sexual Politics of Piety." In Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages through the Early Modern Period, edited by Lawrence Fine, pp. 131142. Princeton, N.J., 2001. Medieval primary texts and feminist analysis.

Ginsberg, Johanna R. "Dipping into Tradition: The Mikveh Makes a Comeback." Jewish Theological Seminary Magazine 10, no. 3 (2001): 1213, 1921. Discussion of resurgence of miqveh use in contemporary American Conservative Judaism.

Levine, Lee. "The Age of Hellenism: Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the Hasmonean Kingdom." In Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, edited by Hershel Shanks, rev. ed., pp. 231264. Upper Saddle River, N.J., 1999. Includes archaeological perspectives on miqvaʾot in the Second Temple period.

Levitt, Laura, and Sue Ann Wasserman. "Mikvah Ceremony for Laura." In Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook, edited by Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton, pp. 321325. Boston, 1992. A contemporary miqveh ritual in the aftermath of sexual assault.

Slonim, Rivkah, ed. Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology. Northvale, N.J., 1996. Contemporary reflections on miqveh use from Orthodox points of view.

Wasserfall, Rahel R., ed. Women and Water: Menstruation in Jewish Life and Law. Hanover, N.H., 1999. Scholarly essays on women and miqveh immersion with a strong ethnographical slant.

Judith R. Baskin (2005)

Miqveh

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