Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ritual bath a mysterious Jewish commandment

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The ritual is commonly referred to as a spiritual high and a sanctification of femininity, and is considered the cornerstone of Jewish family and community life.

Yet, the mitzva of mikva is one of the most mysterious and misunderstood of the Jewish commandments.

A mikva is a ritual bath that is used primarily, although not exclusively, by observant Jewish women. Immersion in the mikva represents spiritual cleansing, renewal and rebirth.

There are three mikvas in Winnipeg. The newest one is housed in the ground level of the Jewish Learning Centre (JLC), which opened in River Heights in 2010, and is accessed by appointment only through an unmarked, discreet door. The mikva pool is mostly filled with rainwater that is channelled from the roof through an intricate system of pipes and ingenuity.

"The commandments related to the mikva are fundamental to Judaism," explains Rabbi Shmuly Altein, director of Adult Education at the JLC.

"The building of a mikva is more important than the building of a synagogue. A community can even sell a Torah in order to build or make a mikva."

The mikva ritual is part of a collection of halacha, or Jewish laws, known as taharat hamishpacha, the purity of the family. At their most basic level, these laws are designed to enhance both respect and intimacy between husband and wife.

According to taharat hamishpacha, married women are required to immerse themselves in the purifying waters of the mikva on a monthly basis, seven days after the end of their menstrual cycle. Following this immersion, husbands and wives can resume intimacy, which had been put on hold during the prior two weeks.

Women also use the mikva after childbirth and on the eve of their marriage. Although not required to by Jewish law, men often avail themselves of the mikva for spiritual cleansing before morning prayers, the Sabbath and the holy day of Yom Kippur.

As well, mikva submersion is a vital step in the process of conversion to Judaism.

Before immersing themselves in the mikva, women and men must undergo diligent preparations, bathing, carefully combing out their hair, trimming their nails and removing all makeup and jewelery. These preparations are generally carried out in the privacy of their home or in special rooms that directly access the mikva pool.

The actual immersion in the mikva is witnessed by a pool attendant and accompanied by the recitation of a special blessing. The entire body must be completed enveloped by the water, so that, symbolically there is nothing coming between God and the person submerging.

"In Winnipeg about 50 women use the mikva on a monthly basis, both orthodox and non-orthodox," says Adina Altein, who is one of the JLC's five mikva attendants. "They are a very diverse group of women both in age and levels of observance."

The mikva ritual provides women with many practical, emotional and health benefits and puts them in tune with their bodies, she adds.

"For many women this is the one mitzva that they choose to keep. They recognize the importance and see the positive impact it has on their life."

Actress Mayim Bialik, of television's The Big Bang Theory, writes enthusiastically about the mikva in her blog on Kveller.com.

"When you go, it's a beautiful moment of physical and emotional cleansing during which time you can feel truly and completely pure," she says. "When I close my eyes and go under the water, it's silent and it's warm and I feel really safe."

The mikva ritual, like most faith-based traditions, also connects Jews to their past. All modern day mikvas, regardless of their spa-like atmosphere, muted lighting and tiled pool flooring, conform to the same halachically determined standards that governed the construction of mikvas 2,000 years ago. Many of these ancient mikvas have been excavated in the old city of Jerusalem near the remains of the Second Jewish Temple.

schisvin@hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 J13

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