Ask the Expert: Using the Ocean as a Mikveh

How do you dunk in the ocean?

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Question: I heard that you can use a natural body of water, like an ocean or a lake, as a mikveh if you don’t have a regular mikveh available to you. How does that work? You just go skinny dipping and say a blessing?

–Rose, New York

Answer: Skinny dipping as spiritual practice? I wish! There are rules for using the mikveh (sometimes spelled mikvah) that make it a little more organized than just cavorting naked in the water with your friends.

In general, I’d say that if you regularly use a mikveh for the purposes of family purity and you’re going to be in a situation where you won’t have access to one, but will have access to a natural body of water, like an ocean or a lake, it’s best to contact a rabbi or yoetzet and get their input. A yoetzet is a woman who has carefully studied the laws of niddah and is considered an authority on issues related to the mikveh. If you don’t already have a yoetzet that you know and feel comfortable with, your rabbi might be able to recommend one, or you can check out yoatzot.org.the expert

However, I can give you some basic tips on using a natural body of water for ritual immersion. First of all, not all bodies of water are created equal, and they don’t all work as mikvehs. The laws of what constitutes a mikveh, and the construction of a mikveh are very complex, and there is an entire tractate of the Mishnah devoted to this topic. In short, a mikveh must be connected to a natural spring, or a natural well, or be connected to a cistern of rainwater (Mikvaot 7:1). Oceans are considered springs, so they always work, as do rivers that do not originate from rainwater. If you’re dealing with a river or spring that’s made up mainly of rainwater, you need to find a part of the water that is not moving. The water also needs to be deep enough that you can immerse your whole body at once.

Obviously, whenever one deals with water and swimming there are concerns about safety, and it’s absolutely imperative that ritual immersion doesn’t put your life at risk. If you can’t swim, an ocean mikveh is not for you.

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