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Waters of Life

Allowing the Pure Waters to Cleanse Body and Soul

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t was the night before Simi Lichtman’s wedding. She was preparing to go to the mikveh (Hebrew for collection of water) for the first time – where a person immerses as part of the Jewish purification rite. For brides and grooms, the mikveh is the private passage from unmarried to married, much like the ceremony under the chuppah (marriage canopy) is the public declaration of that change in status. It also establishes Taharat Hamishpachah – the practice of the laws of Jewish Family Purity

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for the duration of marriage. “Many women find the mikveh to be a revitalizing and soothing event. To me, that first time was scary,” said Lichtman. “I have practiced Judaism my whole life; but to have this new law suddenly thrust on me, to be repeated each month, carried with it the weight of expectations I might not live up to.” For thousands of years, Jewish men and women have used the mikveh for ritual immersion for various purification purposes. The Mikveh at Temple Beth Sholom

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“It was the original baptism,” according to Mayim Bialik, an observant Jew, author, Ph.D and actress best known as Blossom Russo on NBC’s Blossom and Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS’s The Big Bang Theory. “Women who practice this mitzvah immerse in the mikveh after niddah (the period of sexual separation of husband and wife during the wife’s menstrual cycle) to become spiritually pure to resume sexual relations with their husband,” Bialik says. The Torah describes all ritual impurity as rooted in the absence of life. Each month a woman’s body prepares for the possibility of conception, entering the state of taharah (purity). The uterus readies itself with a lining to serve as a cradle for life. Menstruation is the • “Mommy Comprehensive shedding of that lining when conception does not occur. The deparMakeover” cosmetic surgery ture of potential life is like death and thus the woman enters the state • Tummy Tuck services for the of tumah (impurity). Only immersion can restore a woman to purity. • Liposuction face and body. Mikvehs are also used for conversions; spiritual and bodily healing; • Nonpurification from contact with the dead; following childbirth, once the surgical facial • Eyes mother has stopped bleeding; and purification of the body before burial. rejuvenation • Nose According to author Maurice Lamm, professor at Yeshiva (facial • Lips injectables) University’s Rabbinical Seminary in New York, the mikveh, at • Ear lobes its essence, is not about being unclean. “It’s about enabling a • Facelift Call human encounter with the power of the holy to attain spiritual • Arms (702) 362-5960 • Breast elevation. The Torah prescribes immersion as well for men after Enhancement, for a complimentary nocturnal seminal emissions. The scribe who works on a Torah consultation Lift scroll must immerse before writing God’s name. Converts to Judaism are required to immerse, marking their rebirth as members of the tribe of Israel. Observant Jews —men and women www.drfisherlasvegas.com — often go to the mikveh in preparation for Yom Kippur. Some Hasidim make a practice of going to the mikveh weekly in prep5380 S. Rainbow Blvd. Ste. 210, Las Vegas, NV 89118 aration for Shabbat.” “To be sure,” says Rivkah Slonim, education director at the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University, Dr Fisher.indd 1 2/8/13 9:08 AM and author of Total Immersion, A Mikveh Anthology, “the mikveh as an institution is the victim of a popular misconception. “Immersion in water is naturally associated with cleansing. To further complicate the issue, historically Jews were barred from using rivers in their cities for bathing. In response, they built bathhouses, many with mikvehs in or near them,” he says. “Together, these factors forged a link between the idea of mikveh and physical hygiene. In fact, the Halacha (Jewish law) stipulates that one must be scrupulously clean before immersing. In fact, to facilitate this requirement, all mikvehs have preparation areas – with baths, showers, shampoos, soaps and other cleansing and beauty aids.” “The perfect band for your Weddings, A bridal, or kallah, coach guided Lichtman through the intricate Bar/Bat Mitzvahs process of her first ritual immersion. “Before immersing you have and other special to cleanse yourself of all dirt and attachments, which is a lot harder occasions.” than it sounds,” Lichtman says. “That includes the removal of jewelry, contact lenses, nail polish, trimming long nails, and a thorough cleaning under the finger and toenails. You also check that you are completely clean from your menstrual cycle.” A mikveh attendant, trained in mikveh laws and the use of discretion during this time of privacy and intimacy, checks each person beMusic Director fore and during immersion to ensure that all is kosher (properly done). Jon Morvay “You’re supposed to dunk twice, with every part of your body submerged. If even a hair floats above the water, you have to dunk again,” Lichtman says, recalling her concerns over strict adherence 702-240-0455 • 702-245-8068 to the ritual. “There is also a blessing to say in between the dunks, harborlights1@cox.net and though the blessing is on the wall, I could not read it because www.harborlightsmusicwest.com I couldn’t wear my contact lenses. I had to remember it, and that made me nervous.”

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Lichtman not only got through it the first time, to her surprise she was excited to return. “After my niddah time each month, I looked forward to the ritual dunk, excited that I would soon return to my husband to be with him sexually. Jeremy was taking seriously the obligation to romance me on mikveh night; and I’m quite happy to be romanced.” A Las Vegas woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, says observing the family purity laws provided the possibility of repeated “honeymoons.” “Sexual boredom can beleaguer a relationship and chip away at its foundation. The mandatory monthly separation fosters feelings of longing and desire,” she says. “A modern-day mikveh looks like a miniature swimming pool,” says Slonim. “Its ordinary appearance can underestimate its primary place in Jewish life and law.” To be kosher and offer spiritual power, a mikveh must be built to the numerous and complex specifications Jewish law outlines. “The world’s oceans, rivers, wells and spring-fed lakes are mikvehs in their most primal form,” Slonim says. “They contain waters of divine source, and thus, tradition teaches, the power to purify. These waters, however, may be inaccessible or dangerous, not to mention the problems of inclement weather and lack of privacy. Jewish life, therefore, necessitates the construction of mikvehs.” A mikveh must be built into the ground or as an essential part of a building. Portable receptacles such as bathtubs do not qualify. Halachic authorities say it must contain a minimum of 200 gallons of rainwater, gathered and siphoned into the mikveh pool in accordance with a specific set of regulations. Modern-day mikvehs are equipped with filtration and water-purification systems. The waters commonly are chest-high and kept at a comfortable temperature. Access to the pool is achieved via seven steps. Many mikvehs are now accessible to the handicapped via lifts. In ancient times the famed well of Miriam (Moses’ sister) served as a mikveh. Until recently, mikvehs could be described as relatively nondescript. The last few decades, however, have sparked a new trend by modern Jewish women, and the rabbinate, to build lavish immersion pools and preparation areas, including elegant foyers and waiting rooms, often rivaling luxurious spas. One can find buildings with upward of 30 preparation areas and four immersion pools in communities that have large numbers of mikveh users. Mikvehs can even be found in remote and exotic places, such as Agadir, Morocco, Asuncion in Paraguay and Zarzis in Tunisia. Immersion in a mikveh takes place after sundown. Appointments to use or tour a mikveh generally are made by phoning a local synagogue office. Three mikvehs serve the greater Las Vegas Jewish community: through Congregation Shaarei Tefilla, Chabad of Southern Nevada and Temple Beth Sholom. Most Jews, even those who consider themselves secular, are familiar with the Sabbath, kashrus (dietary laws), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and a number of other Torah and rabbinic obligations. “Mikveh and Family Purity are shrouded, however, in obscurity — pages torn out of the book, as it were,” Slonim says. Yet the observance of Family Purity is a biblical injunction of the highest order, Slonim says. “The infraction of this law is equated with major transgressions, such as the intentional violation of the fast on the holy day of Yom Kippur, and not entering into the covenant through ritual circumcision (brit milah).” Rabbi Lamm says most “Jews see the synagogue as the central insti34 DAVID SIVAN / TAMMUZ 5773

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tution in Jewish life, whereas it’s mandated by Jewish law to construct a mikveh before building a house of worship. If necessary, Jews may sell a synagogue and a Torah scroll to raise funds to build a mikveh. Jewish law even states that a group of Jewish families do not attain the status of a community if they do not have a communal mikveh.” Slonim and Lamm note that private and communal prayer can be held almost anywhere, but Jewish married life, and by extension the birth of future generations in accordance with Halacha, is possible only where a mikveh is accessible. Human sexuality is a primary force in the lives of a married couple. “In stark contrast to Christian dogma – where marriage is seen as a concession to the weakness of the flesh, and celibacy is extolled as a virtue – the Torah exalts matrimony, and within that consecrated union, human sexuality is not only a mitzvah, but one of the holiest of all human endeavors,” Slonim says. The late 1960s and early ’70s were marked by a significant decline in mikveh observance, however, which continued over the next five decades. Jewish feminists objected to what they viewed as the patriarchal concept of family purity. Mikveh continued, but mostly among Conservative and Orthodox Jews. “They saw niddah and the mikveh requirement as a denigration of women – keeping them from tainting men,” says Shuly Rubin Schwartz, assistant professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. “The 2000s, however, heard women saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is a tradition that was an important part of Judaism for our foremothers. Let’s look at the deeper meaning.’” Best-selling author Anita Diamant did just that. Mayyim Hayyim (Living Waters) Community Mikveh and Education Center opened its doors in 2004 in Boston, spearheaded by Diamant. She believed it was time for a mikveh that encouraged “the prayers of the heart in Jews of every denomination and description; respected the choices of everyone; and served as a destination for Jews across the spectrum of observance and affiliation.” Boston is home to the first Jewish Federation and the first Jewish Teachers College. Mayyim Hayyim joins them with this innovative experiment in Jewish life. Besides traditional purposes, the waters at Mayyim Hayyim allow visitors to celebrate milestone events such as graduations, birthdays and anniversaries. Immersion also can signify a new start in the aftermath of pain and trauma; the end of formal grieving; or the beginning of healing from events such as a miscarriage, chemotherapy, bereavement, divorce, rape or abuse. “The goal is to provide the Jewish community with an opportunity to emerge renewed and ready for life’s next gifts,” Diamant says. The Center occupies a renovated Victorian home. It serves as an education center, a celebration venue and an art gallery. New construction added two mikvehs, four preparation suites and a reception area. Mayyim Hayyim is guided by seven Principles of Common Purpose developed under the auspices of The Synagogue Council of Massachusetts. Purpose three, Ahahvat Yisrael - Love of the Jewish People, honors ritual immersion according to one’s personal interpretation. Purpose four, Klal Yisrael - Jewish Community, states that “We are one Jewish people.” Whether a Jew wishes to embrace the new or the traditional path to mikveh, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, “The old becomes new, and the new becomes holy.” Those who immerse in the holy waters emerge pure, renewed and inspired to whatever the future holds. — Lynn Wexler-Margolies JUNE 2013 DAVID

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Lynn Wexler - David Magazine, June 2013 Issue