The fundamental laws of mikveh derive from part of a single verse in this week’s Torah portion: “Only a wellspring and a pit, a gathering of water, will purify . . . ” (Lev. 11:36).
There are ten misconceptions about a mikveh’s uses, users, makeup, costs and relation to cleanliness.
Misconception 1: The mikveh cleanses a dirty person.
It’s just the opposite. An immersion in a mikveh is invalid if even the tiniest piece of dirt adheres to the body. Nothing may intervene between the immersee and the mikveh water.
Misconception 2: A mikveh must be sparkling clean.
This misconception is the counterpoint to the first one. While the immersee must be perfectly clean, the mikveh water must meet only this criterion: It must be rainwater that comes to the mikveh straight from the sky without passing through any object that holds, or cups, water. “At the hands of Heaven,” as Jewish law puts it. Once the water is in the mikveh, however, even if it is used repeatedly to the extent that it dirties or changes color, it remains valid. The person must be perfectly clean; the mikveh, not.
That is the letter of the law. The practice is very different. People do not want, and should not want, to use a dirty mikveh. In fact, the great preponderance of the laws of mikveh consist of astute halachic and construction techniques for achieving two seemingly incompatible goals: perfect cleanliness in a mikveh, and the halachic requirement that mikveh water derive, uncupped, uncontained, from the skies (i.e., clean water may not simply be poured from a container into a mikveh). In fact, although cleanliness is not a basic halachic requirement, it is a basic characteristic of all mikvehs today; these two incompatible goals are achieved.
Misconception 3: A mikveh is “living water” (mayyim chaim).
This phrase is not a poetic or spiritual flight, but a precise definition of the alternative to a mikveh: a wellspring or other body of water fed by underground water sources (unlike mikveh water, which comes from the skies).
The reason why water found in nature (such as in a wellspring) is called “living water” is that it purifies an immersee even when it, the water, is flowing (“living”). The mikveh, on the other hand, is disqualified if it is not perfectly “gathered” (as the verse in this week’s Torah portion puts it), i.e., if the water is not completely contained within the mikveh’s walls. If a mikveh springs even the smallest, recognizable leak, a mikveh is disqualified. Its waters are not “gathered.” That is the reason why the thickness and density of the walls of a mikveh pool tend to exceed building code requirements. Not so, a wellspring — its “living waters” need not be contained.
Misconception 4: All natural bodies of water, such as lakes and rivers, qualify as a valid mikveh.
Not so. Mikveh water must be contained; and natural, flowing water must be fed by underground water sources. Man-made, rain-derived and snow-derived lakes that are not perfectly contained, and rivers consisting of rainwater or melted snow, are invalid as halachic ritual pools.
All oceans are valid mikveh pools. However, immersion in an ocean is discouraged for safety reasons; and immersion in oceans and halachically valid lakes and rivers is discouraged for two additional reasons: (a) modesty; and (b) the water may be so cold that an immersee rushes the immersion, such that not all parts of the body touch the water at once. That is an invalid immersion.
Misconception 5: A mikveh is for women.
Not so, in principle. The Torah prescribes many uses of the mikveh for both male and female, married and single. Virtually all of these uses were suspended as a consequence of the destruction of the ancient holy Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. The rituals entailing the uses of a mikveh by males, and all but one use by females, operated only when the Temple stood.
With its destruction, the use of the mikveh narrowed to one use by females; and to use in conjunction with conversion to Judaism (see misconception 7).
Misconception 6: A mikveh discriminates against females.
The more accurate way to put it is to say that the mikveh, after the destruction of the Temple, discriminates on behalf of married females. The one remaining opportunity to ascend from a state of ritual impurity to ritual purity is applicable to the married female. Males are unable to ascend from their states of ritual impurity; and females are similarly handicapped, with their one exception. It is these deficiencies, among other reasons, that drive the prayers for the rebuilding of the Temple.
Misconception 7: The main use of a mikveh is conversion.
The more accurate way to put it is to say that a valid use of a mikveh is as an indispensable ritual — unconnected to ritual purity — for conversion to Judaism. But the main use? That would be the monthly use of the mikveh by a married, pre-menopausal female, not the once-in-a-lifetime use by a convert.
Misconception 8: There is no problem making a mikveh anywhere, even in an arid region, for one can and may ship in snow and let it melt in the mikveh.
This is true in principle but very tricky in practice. To ship in snow in a halachically valid way is to ensure that the snow does not melt, even in extremely small amounts (1/320 of the water required for a valid mikveh), before it is deposited in the mikveh.
Misconception 9: A mikveh is extremely expensive.
True, and not true. The main costs associated with a mikveh are the total costs of the land, the construction, the architect, the appointments (tiles, showers, sinks, bathtubs, etc.), and halalchic supervision, not the mikveh pools themselves; although much time and expertise are required to pour and test the concrete for the mikveh pools.
Misconception 10: A mikveh is invalidated if it is used for a halachically invalid or unmandated purpose.
Not so. The power of the mikveh is its imperviousness to impurity. The last phrase in this Torah portion’s verse, “Only a wellspring and a pit, a gathering of water, will purify,” denotes three separate laws of mikveh. Accordingly, it is translated in three ways:
(a) “will purify” — i.e., will transform the person who became ritually impure into a state of ritual purity;
(b) “will come into existence by means of purity” — i.e., rainwater must flow to the cistern only via flat materials (such as wood or plastic) that cannot become ritually impure; and
(c) “will be immune to impurity.” No invalid or unmandated use of a mikveh can render the mikveh water impure.
That said, I like to invoke the analogy of the inside-the-park home run. It’s a valid part of baseball. It is also an extreme rarity. To use a mikveh for a valid but extremely rare use, while not to use it month in and month out for its primary use, is to elevate the inside-the-park home run to the idea of a fastball, a walk or a strikeout.
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