All About the Mikveh
A few years ago, my wife was teaching about Taharat Hamishpacha, the laws of family purity, at the Solomon Schechter school in Cleveland. In the weeks before her class, rabbis of various denominations in the city had encouraged their congregants to attend the session, noting that family purity was a major part of Jewish tradition.
One student shared her own beautiful personal tradition, which illustrated how the family purity laws can renew a marriage. The woman reported that upon her return from the Mikveh each month, her husband would lovingly place the wedding band back upon her finger and say appropriate words to his "bride."
The observance of Taharat Hamishpacha has been a central feature of Jewish life for millennia. One finds Mikvehs in medieval Spain, in ancient Italy and in the famed desert outpost of Masada. In fact the single most decisive element archaeologists use in determining whether or not an unearthed settlement is Jewish is the presence of a Mikveh. This is consonant with Halacha (Jewish law) which mandates that even before the town synagogue is built, a Mikveh must first be established.
The source of the laws of Mikveh and family purity is found in this week's Torah portion. The Torah commands that when a woman has a menstrual flow, she and her husband must stay apart from one another. During this period she is "tameh," a Hebrew term that has been incorrectly translated as "unclean."
In point of fact, the word tameh has nothing to do with uncleanness. When one is tameh it means that a person has had some contact with death. In the instance of a menstruating woman, it is the death of the ovum. Similarly, when a man has had physical relations (which inevitably involve the death of millions of sperm), he too is tameh. Implicit in this Biblical tradition is a great sensitivity and awareness of the natural life cycle.
After a week has passed since the cessation of the woman's menstrual flow, the woman goes to the Mikveh where she undergoes a "spiritual rebirth." Various aspects of the Mikveh experience reinforce this notion of rebirth. The Mikveh itself must have 40 seah (a Torah measurement) of water, the number 40 alluding to the 40th day after conception when the soul of a child enters the embryo.The woman must have no ornaments or barriers between herself and the water, for her emerging from the Mikveh is like that of the newborn leaving the waters of the womb.
Why the separation between husband and wife? The Talmud explains that during this period of abstinence, their longing for one another increases. The wisdom of this Talmudic observation has been borne out by psychological and physiological studies, as well as the testimony of its adherents. Many men and women declare that because they observe this practice, they feel as if each month is another honeymoon.
Still others report that abstaining from physical relations intermittently strengthens the relationship, since the husband and wife must relate on an emotional level independent of any issues of physicality.
The Jewish People have traditionally been known for the strength of their families. It is the observance of Taharat Hamishpacha, perhaps more than any other factor, that lies behind this strength.