Mikveh: A Spiritual Preparation for Marriage

The mikveh, or ritual bath, signifies the spiritual rebirth of bride and groom as they ponder their approaching marriage.

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Excerpted with permission from The New Jewish Wedding (Simon & Schuster, Inc.).

For centuries the Jewish bride has immersed herself in a mikveh--a ritual bath--in preparation for her wedding. The bridal mikveh (sometimes pronounced mikvah) was a woman's first trip to a place that would be part of her life's rhythms for as long as she menstruated, and for traditional Jews mikveh remains a crucial part of married life [mikveh signifies that a woman and her husband are again allowed sexual contact, seven days after her menstrual flow ends].

 

Fundamentally, mikveh is not about "uncleanness" but about human encounters with the power of the holy. The Torah prescribes immersion not only for women after menstruation but also for men after seminal emissions. The scribe who works on a Torah scroll must immerse himself before writing God's name. All converts to Judaism are required to immerse themselves in the mikveh, marking their rebirth as members of the people of Israel. And some observant Jews--men and women--go to mikveh in preparation for Yom Kippur, when one has the opportunity to become "dead" to past sins and begin the year with a pure heart. There are Hasidim who make a practice of going to mikveh weekly in preparation for Shabbat.

According to the Talmud, the ultimate source of all water is the river that emerged from Eden. By immersing themselves in the mikveh, people participate in the wholeness of Eden and are reborn as pure as Adam and Eve. Mikveh also represents the physical source of life--the womb--from which humans enter the world untouched by sin.

For brides and grooms mikveh is a physical enactment of the passage from being unmarried to married. Entering the huppah [marriage canopy] is a public declaration of a change in status; entering the mikveh is a private transforming moment….

A mikveh is any body of mayim hayim, literally, "living water," running water as opposed to stagnant water. Ponds, lakes, rivers, and seas are natural mikvaot. For many, mikveh in a body of natural water is a more satisfying experience--spiritually, emotionally, and aesthetically--than mikveh indoors in what looks like a miniature swimming pool. However, weather or climate or family custom often discourages outdoor mikveh.

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Anita Diamant

Anita Diamant is a writer. Her books include Choosing a Jewish Life, The New Jewish Wedding, Saying Kaddish, and The Red Tent, a novel. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

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