My Mikvah, My Mitzvah

(Inspired in part by this article)

I am a married orthodox Jewish woman. I adhere to the laws of Taharat Hamishpacha – family purity. As a married orthodox Jewish woman, I am trusted by God and my husband to observe these laws in the ways I have been taught, the same laws that were taught to my mother and her mother and her mother etc.

I do not have to answer to anyone or prove my observance of this mitzvah. My husband trusts me to go to the mikvah at the appointed time, he trusts that I am performing the mitzvah correctly and wouldn’t dream of going through a pre-Mikvah checklist with me. (oh, I have heard of such situations, believe me). He knows my cycle, he knows when I am counting, he keeps track – it’s in his interest to do so – but never would he question my timing or my preparation.

This mitzvah is given to us women, it is our mitzvah. This is something so deep and personal, we generally do not share the intimate details of our observance of this mitzvah with even our closest friends.

So – by that token, if God trusts me to perform this mitzvah to the best of my ability, and my husband trusts me, why on earth would I allow anyone to tell me I am not doing it properly? Why on earth would someone else feel that they were able to judge my preparations or my acceptability to be toiveled?

If a woman has correctly calculated when she needs to go and immerse in order to be ritually purified, and she prepares for her immersion according to the way she has been taught, why can the balanit / mikvah lady decide that she hasn’t done a good enough job? How can she assume that the woman’s preparations are not up to the right standards? Is her word not good enough? Who gives the balanit that power?

My balanit checks my nails and for loose hairs on my back. I am ok with that. If I wanted her to check me more, she would. If I wanted her to check me less, she’d be ok with that too. She is awesome.

How dare anyone tell a woman she has too much dry skin on her elbows, or that her long nails render her tevilah invalid? How dare anyone forbid another woman from immersing because she cannot prove she is Jewish? (I cannot prove I am Jewish on mikvah night!! Who walks around with their ketubah?!) How dare a balanit walk away from the mikvah room, after refusing to watch a tevilah, due to her doubts as to whether the woman has prepared appropriately?

As far as I am aware balaniot are volunteers. They are not paid for their service. And the majority of them are awesome and giving people. They are there to help, not hinder. It’s the few that we hear of, like those in the disputed Ramat Beit Shemesh mikvah, that make this whole mikvah experience a nerve wracking experience for some.

Mikvah is a mitzvah that I enjoy performing. I have written before of the peace it brings me, the deep spiritual cleansing I feel after having immersed. The joy of being able to reunite with my husband on all levels. I would hate for my mikvah experience to take away from that.

Taharat Hamishpacha is not an easy mitzvah to keep. Without going into too much detail here it involves certain bodily awareness and counting of a specific number of days – you have to make sure you are immersing on the right night. In the not too distant past there were places where it involved a lot of co-ordination in order to get to a mikvah – hours away, in a far off town, sometimes at great risk. It’s indeed much easier to not bother with it. But we do, as we are religious Jews who have taken this mitzvah upon ourselves. If we are prepared to go toivel, we need to be welcomed. We need to be encouraged to continue to keep this mitzvah. We need to be able to make the most of our potentially deeply spiritual experience – not be worried that our tevilah will not be valid.

The more I blog about the subject of mikvah the more stories I hear of negative experiences. It breaks my heart. This is a mitzvah I do with my entire body and with my soul – there is no other mitzvah I can think of that encompasses that. There is no other mitzvah that brings me such profound spiritual fulfillment. We need to stand firm and embrace our mitzvah and not let anyone cheapen it or take away from its spiritual value.

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  1. shorty says:

    it absolutely breaks my heart when i hear stories of Jews fighting with other Jews.

  2. extremely well written and *poignant* example of jews fighting against, rather than with or for, each other. shorty said it best: heart-breaking. thanks for sharing this.

  3. frumgoth says:

    What a beautiful post about a beautiful mitzvah. I am sorry if what I am writing is on a sad note, but it is with good intentions. I have been divorced for ten years, and recently I was bringing dishes to the local mikveh to toivel. I had not been back there since my divorce. When I walked into the waiting area I felt an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness. I can’t even express how strong this feeling was. I just want to remind those of you who do have a husband and are able to perform this mitzvah, to always appreciate him and all of the blessings in life.

  4. shualah elisheva says:

    kol hakavod! if only more people focused on k’lal yisrael and the fulfillment of the mitzvah rather than chumras and spite.

    a long.overdue rant on behalf of women – well.written and eloquent. thank you, hadassah.

  5. I will honestly say I started going to the mikveh last year. That first time I was petrified because I didn’t know what to do. When I called I told the mikveh lady it was my first time and I’d need help. She was SOO kind to me. I prayed that night for my husband’s health (he needed a heart transplant) and for his conversion to make our family complete. Then I immersed. The mikveh lady was wonderful and helped me…as she still does with the blessings (since I can’t see them very well!) Anyway, that was March 2009. About 2 weeks later a heart became available and saved my husband’s life (he was pretty much circling the drain the day it came and only had a few days left). A year later…he also dipper in the same mikveh and became a Jew. Had the mikveh lady made me feel inadequate or improper, I would never have gone back. In the meantime, I believe Hashem had a plan. My rabbi approved my going and I have faithfully gone ever since. The mikveh is an hour away each way. It’s a pain. Some months…I am sick and I miss because I can’t travel but we still keep family purity. It’s our commitment to the gifts G-d gave us for taking on this mitzvah.

  6. kisarita says:

    The balaniot are there as reminders that no, the mitzva of of taharat hamishpacha has NOT been given to women. The balanit serves as the emissary of the male rabbinate, who supervise you by proxy. But that is really no different than the bedikot you carry out because Rabbis who never menstruated were convinced that you were as clueless as they were as to whether you were bleeding or not, or the 7 “clean days” because they didn’t know how to time a regular period vs. an irregular one (nida/ zavah)… not to mention that they expect YOU, who menstruate monthly to show THEY who have never menstruated at all, to determine the status of your stains, according to their theoretical rules. Honey the halachas of niddah as practiced today are all about control; the control of your body by the Rabbinic establishment. No, the mitzva has not been given to you and that’s why the balanit is there.

    • shualah elisheva says:

      kisarita:

      like almost everything, taharat hamispacha can be manipulated and is sometimes used as a means of control [see: overly strict balaniot who impose their own chumras or the chumras of their rabbis].

      however, to broadly paint taharat hamishpacha as chauvinist and forceful in its own right denies women the ability to freely think and accept the yoke of the mitzvot on their own terms.

      i know i certainly plan on adhering to taharat hamishpacha if, g-d willing, i should get married – and that’s MY choice, not the choice of my future g-d.willing husband nor his rabbi nor mine. it holies the physical bonds of marriage, for me – and what’s so wrong with that?

    • Anonymous says:

      Kisarita, while as a man I cannot really comment as an expert on the topic I must point out one possible correction to your comment.

      The Talmud in Maseches Nidah explains that women accepted the stringency of the extra days upon themselves when the expertise to tell the difference between Nidah and Zavah became scarce.

      It has since become the standard practice and halacha.

    • Chanief says:

      I have to disagree with you that the mitzvah is all about control. Rather, it’s origins are based on a primitive lack of understanding of what menstruation is. If you look into what the understanding of a woman’s body and how it worked was back then, it becomes blatantly obvious that they really had no clue how the female reproductive system worked and therefore held the erroneous belief that menstrual blood was unholy and unclean (because they did not understand where it came from.)

      It’s since become an accepted and very meaningful commandment for many religious women and it is a system which helps keep the tribe together. There are many women who truly enjoy following every part of this mitzvah – and good for them! They don’t feel put upon and they benefit emotionally from it, which is a good thing I will never argue against. But there are many women who don’t enjoy it and for them it does feel like a burden and a degradation – those are the women I feel sorry for, not the ones following these laws because it brings them joy and marital satisfaction.

      • Duvii says:

        Chanie, I wish I knew where you got this from, please post a source.

        Ritual purity has nothing to do with the way the body works, clearly Hashem made the body work as it does and he also set down the laws of Ritual Purity.

        There are numerous manners in which one can become Ritually unclean having nothing to do with the function of the human body such as touching a dead person, animal etc.

        The spiritual realm or Tumah and Taharah is exactly that, spiritual. It is not grounded in our understanding of the human body.

  7. kisarita says:

    Anonymous, that is an incorrect understanding of chumra d’rabi Zeira. Chumra d’rabi Zeira that “the daughters of Israel accepted upon themselves” was to applie the 7 post-zava days to scant spotting “tipas dam k’chardal” instead of after 3 days of extramenstrual or irregular bleeding.
    Any woman knows the difference between scant spotting and a normal menstrual period. However the RABBIS increased the chumra to apply to a normal menstrual period, as is clearly stated in Niddah 63 “HaIdna Culhu Zavos Shvinhu Rabbanan.”

  8. kisarita says:

    Chanie I differentiate between the mitzva and its application. The original mitzva may have had to do with tumah and tahara, but the way its application has developed is very much about control. This has reached extreme proportions today, with Rabbis deciding who may or may not use the mikvah, what time, and under what circumstances. The balanit, even an inobtrusive one, is an instrument of that.

  9. kisarita says:

    BTW menstrual blood IS unclean as are all bodily discharges, that are not immediately cleaned away (as are dead bodies). Remember we are talking about a world without running water and antibiotics. And menstrual bleeding differs from other sources of bodily discharge in that it can not be controled until one reaches a designated place. I suspect a strong hygienic basis underlying the mitzva, although of course, there are many other possible reasons.

  10. kisarita says:

    anonymous you may find my interpretation unique but I believe its simple pshat. I do not believe it would be unique had women had the license to interpret it all along.

  11. Y Kohn says:

    A few things need to be clarified.
    This mitzvah is for both men and women. A woman has the halachic status of being a kosher witness on matters of ‘issur’ or ‘heter’ and it is on that basis that a woman who claims that she is clean, must be believed.

    It is the same reason that ‘one’ mashgiach’ is sufficient at an eating establishment (unlike being a witness at kedushin or a get where only 2 adult frum males are required). It is called in the Talmud “eid echod ne’eman be’issurin” and as a rule; whenever one male is sufficient a woman too is sufficient to bare witness.

    The same principle that applies when your husband (for that matter your children or your guests) can believe you that the food (which falls under the catagory of issur and heter) you are serving him is kosher.

    However, neither you nor your husband can decide if a particular fish has the requisite fins and scales to be deemed as a kosher fish. Sometimes you need a Rabbi to rule on matter of what ‘is’ actually Kosher. [A woman can be a witness if a particular species of fish was used in the recipe, but only a Rav can rule on its kosher status if in doubt]

    To given even another analogy; suppose you dropped something milichig into the cholent. Does that fact that you are in charge of the kitchen and your have the special mitzva of cooking for shabbes make you an expert in ruling on the Kashrus of the cholent?

    A particular balanit might be right or wrong on the ‘halacha’ but that is not part of your ‘trustworthiness’ when you state that you are tahor, and should be believed as in all matters of issur and heter.

    Just as you can’t claim that since you are cooking the food you should be the ultimate authority on what kind of fish are kosher, so is it when it comes to certain requirements regarding what is a chatzitza.

    Most Mikvaos if not all are private establishments under the supervision of one rabbi or another. They have the moral right and ‘obligation’ to set standards of what the Balanit should look out for.

    Israel is different, many of the mikvaos are state sponsored, and I think any member Rabbi of the Rabanut should be able to notify the balanit that according to his view she should not be stringent with those who rely on his psak.

    As a Charedi I side with the moderns in Bet Shemesh. As long as they have a competent Rav who approves of a less stringent approach, the modern orthodox women should have their right.

  12. kisarita says:

    They have a right as a private establishment to do whatever they please but that right is not based on halacha. There is no halacha that requires a woman to be quizzed or examined by another woman for chatzitzas prior to tevila.

  13. Y Kohn says:

    kisarita.

    Although I disagree both with the content and style of some of what you wrote, and in my opinion they can’t be considered within mainstream halacah. But on the last comment I agree that you are correct. It is up to the woman herself to make sure there is no chatzitza.

    Except as the story is related in the article; the balanit ‘observed’ a chatzitza and went on trying to remove it. I would say in that case she should have just informed her of the halacha. She cannot willy nilly start scrubbing another person, that is offensive to me.

    Then again what does a man know??

  14. Keels says:

    A few points:
    First of all, in Israel, a balanit is a job from Misrad Hadatot and therefore is a payed job (NOT volunteer).

    Second of all, I’ve been there many times. Please don’t believe every word newspapers say. The problem is with ONE balanit. ONE.

    The politics and “control” of the mikva area is a different story, which is somehow mixed in. This one balanit is NOT ok, and I’m guessing/hoping that after all the publicity it will be taken care of.

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