Whether you're dunking for conversion, before marriage, for niddah, or for any other reason, here's what to expect at the ritual bath.
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.