I first learned what a mikvah was when I was on my mission. The Church came out with some (short-lived) discussions directed to Jews, and I got a copy. There was a glossary volume, and one of the things it explained was the mikvah. The word mikvah is Hebrew for a collection (of water) and is a ritual purifying immersion (something we can relate to, with ourown ablutions, such as baptism and various temple washings). I was reminded of this by an article in today’s Chicago Tribune (be sure to check out the video).
Proselytes to Orthodox Judaism must undergo a mikvah; cooking utensils purchased from a gentile must be purified in one prior to use for food; and men will purify themselves before the holidays, before Shabbat, and in some traditions on a daily basis. (Classically it was also necessary for nocturnal emissions.) But the main use of the mikvah is by women: following the seven-day period after menstruation, following childbirth, before a wedding.
These rules mean that an observant, orthodox Jewish couple abstains from touching each other (yes, this includes sex) for about two weeks each month (the period itself and the seven days following). One of the interesting things in the article is that the mikvah, which in modern constructions is a lot like a spa, is a place filled with sexual tension, because most of the women leave the pool to return once again to their husbands. I knew a rabbi who used to like to compare this to a monthly honeymoon, which is a very positive way to look at it.
I also found it interesting that, whereas women of an earlier generation tended to see the mikvah as an anachronism, Jewish feminist women have rediscovered it and see it as a way of marking all sorts of life changes. As the article relates:
Today Jewish women use the mikvah to mark a variety of milestones: menopause, hysterectomy, recovery from illness, divorce, a new job. At Anshe Sholom, one woman visited the spa-like space after leaving an abusive relationship.
So what do you think? Is this one where you feel some sacred envy, or is it better appreciated from afar? Does anyone miss our 19th century practice of rebaptism, for instance?