Shabbat 121

Men also dip.

Some may be familiar with the notion of women going to the mikveh as part of the process of ritual purity related to menstruation. This practice is still kept today in traditional communities, and has actually been on an upward trend in recent years in liberal settings such as Mayyim Hayyim. This has inspired a network of like mikvaot referred to as the Rising Tide Network, where they reimagine the role and purpose of the mikveh ritual for all Jews. Nonetheless, some readers may be uncomfortable with the halachic notion that women are impure because of menstruation — especially when there is no apparently equivalent requirement for men.

In today’s daf, however, we see more equal opportunity and obligation in mikveh usage. This comes directly from the Bible. The Torah requires men to immerse after seminal emission: And if the flow of seed goes out from a man, then he shall bathe all his flesh in water, and be unclean until the evening. (Leviticus 15:16)

The Gemara makes clear the time parameters for correcting the impurity:

A man who has had a seminal emission immerses at any point during the entire day after the emission. 

During the Temple period (before the Talmud), when this was common practice, there were, perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of immersions (archaeologists have uncovered many mikvehs from this era). And it seems to have been taken particularly seriously. Ezra — a priest who returned to Israel from Babylonian exile in about the year 457 BCE and was an important leader in that period — changed the law of ritual immersion. The Gemara in Berakhot 22b examines this takana (literally “fix”) imposed by Ezra, which instituted new parameters for men’s ritual immersion:

Abaye said: Ezra did not institute a sweeping ordinance concerning every case of one who experienced a seminal emission; rather, he instituted only that a healthy person who experienced a normal seminal emission is required to immerse himself in forty se’a (about 140 gallons), while for a healthy person who experienced an involuntary seminal emission, nine kav (about five gallons) are sufficient.

In addition, according to Ezra, men were prohibited from learning Torah until they had purified by immersing. Some later expanded the prohibition to prayer as well.

We might have expected the requirement for men to immerse following emission to stand up until this day. But Ezra’s takana was not widely adopted, and even the talmudic expectation that men would immerse regularly did not withstand the centuries.

While the normative practice of men’s regular mikveh use lost momentum for centuries, today many Hasidic men have adopted the daily practice of ritual immersion. Hasidim go to the mikveh every day for spiritual and kabbalistic reasons, but also because the notion and preponderance of men ejaculating nightly is widely apparent in rabbinic texts.

Read all of Shabbat 121 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 5, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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