The Mikveh and the Purifying Power of Water

Immersion in a pure mikveh is intended to connect the physical body and the realms of earthly life to the sacred, but for the purpose of Torah study and fulfillment of mitzvot there is no need for immersion * Immersion in water symbolizes the Divine grace granted to all equally, similar to rain that falls on all creatures * Immersion in a mikveh is meant to bring man to humility and humbleness similar to water that naturally gathers in low places, and not to be haughty about ones’ high spiritual level, and the number of times he immerses

Many God-fearing people mistakenly think tevila (immersion in a mikveh) is associated with abstention from life in this world, and that the more spiritual one is, the more he should sanctify himself by immersing in a mikveh. However, the truth is that for the purpose of Torah study and other mitzvot connected to the spiritual side of man, tevila is not obligatory. The preparation required for them is emunah (faith) in Hashem and good midot (virtues), without the need to prepare the physical body for this purpose, as our Sages said: “Words of Torah are not susceptible to tumah (ritual impurity), as the verse says, ‘Is not My word like as fire, says the Lord’ (Jeremiah 23:29). Just as fire is not susceptible of tumah, similarly, words of Torah are not susceptible of tumah“(Berachot 22a). Therefore, the Torah did not prescribe immersion in a mikveh in preparation for any mitzvah other than matters related to the Mikdash (Holy Temple) and achilat tohorot (foods eaten in ritual purity). Rather, the goal of tevila and tahara (ritual purity) is to connect the physical body and all the realms of earthly life to kedusha (holiness), along with the joy and gladness, imagination and emotions that accompany them. For indeed, the physical aspects of life are the ones that are liable to be defiled and sealed from receiving Divine blessing, but when Yisrael (Jews) achieves purifying them, they draw life and blessing to all realms of life in this world. As Maran, Rabbi Kook ztz”l explained, that tahara is connected with the manifestation of the physical and instinctual forces which are rectified by means of the Mikdash, and also connected to the revelation of heroism and Israeli nationalism, which involves wars, killing, and stirring of emotions intended for victory and triumph, and in order to balance them, there is a need for abundant tahara to maintain their connection to kedusha (Orot HaTechiya 35).

To this end, the Torah instructed Am Yisrael while in their Land, to contend with all types of impurity in the world, to be cleansed of them, and to asend to the Mikdash three times a year. The kohanim (priests) were required to maintain their purity throughout the country, because they were commanded to eat the offerings of terumah and challah they received from their fellow Jews in purity. There were even Israelites throughout the country who sanctified themselves and practiced the ways of tahara.

The Only Mitzvah of Tevila Today is that of a Wife to Her Husband

Because of our sins the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled from our Land, and tahara was annulled from Am Yisrael; tumah remained affixed to all sides of the material world. Only one type of tahara remained in Israel, the purity of a wife to her husband, which elevates and sanctifies the physical aspects of the joy of the mitzvah between husband and wife. Through this tahara, women continue the sanctity of the Mikdash into their families, and add blessing and life to the world.

Incidentally, even the annulled takana (legislative enactment) of Ezra the Scribe, according to which a man who had a seminal emission was required to immerse even if he did not intend to enter the Mikdash or eat terumot, was intended to intensify the sexual union between a man and his wife – to make it of higher quality, and not like that of roosters (Berachot 22a; Yerushalmi 3:4). Consequently, it was Ezra who amended takanot to reinforce the joy between a man and his wife, for out of his ten takanot, including enactments for the reading of the Torah, court procedures, and tevila, he also amended an enactment to eat garlic on erev Shabbat to intensify the desire for the mitzvah of ona (marital sexual relations), and an additional enactment that peddlers of women’s perfumes and jewelry be allowed to travel freely in the cities, and two other enactments relating to shalom bayit (peace in the house) one, that a woman wear a sinnar, a type of belt, for reasons of modesty, and that before going to mikvah, women comb their hair to ensure the removal of all objects that might cause a barrier between the hair and the water (Bava Kama 82a). We see then that five of Ezra’s enactments dealt with the relationship between husband and wife, and the other five enactments, to increase Torah study in Israel.

A Miniature Temple

Two main foundations were revealed in the Kodesh HaKodeshim (Holy of Holies). One, the Ark of the Covenant containing the Tablets of the Covenant, expressed emunah and Torah. This sanctity is revealed in the Torah learning halls and synagogues, as our Sages said: “‘Yet have I been to them as a little sanctuary’ (Ezekiel 11:16), Rabbi Yitzchak said: This refers to the synagogues and houses of learning in Babylon” (Megillah 29a).

The second foundation is the brit (covenant) between Israel and Hashem, which is the foundation for the value of achdut (unity) and ahava (love) in the world, that is revealed in the mitzvah of joy and love between husband and wife, through which the mitzvah and great principle of the Torah “ve’ ahavta le’rei’echa k’mocha” (“love your neighbor as yourself”), is fulfilled to its fullest extent.

For the first foundation, tevila is not necessary because the words of Torah and prayer are not susceptible to tumah, and there are only minhagei chassidut (customs of extreme piety) associated with it. However, for the second foundation, tevila is obligated from the Torah, because by means of it, tahara is revealed from the source of the Mikdash.

Tevilot in Chassidut

Maran HaRav Kook explained that the inner purpose of the Hasidic movements’ encouraging the public at large to tovel is part of the tzipiyat ha’geulah (anticipation of the Redemption), Israel’s return to its Land, and the revealing of spirituality in body, emotion, and imagination. Consequently, he added, “it is especially appropriate for it (the foundation of tahara) to grow together with the rebirth of the nation in the Land of Israel” (Orot HaTechiya 35).

Unfortunately, like all good things, when one disconnects it from its source and original intention, it is liable to be reversed and obstruct the supreme intention hidden within it. Instead of being an instrument for revealing the kedusha in nationalism and the body, it becomes an end in itself, which is liable to detach a person from the objective of revealing kedusha in actual life.

On another occasion, I will discuss the ways of tahara for men, whether it is preferable in a mikveh, or in a shower of nine kabin (approximately 12.5 liters) of water.

Water Expresses Life and Kindness to All

The mitzvah of tevila is performed precisely in mayim (water), and there are deep, underlying ideas in this. Mayim is the foundation of life in the world, by which Hashem grants life to every living thing. That is why our Sages so extolled the significance of rainy days, in which Hashem grants life to the world, and thus, it is somewhat similar to the day in which heaven and earth were created, to the day Torah was given, and to a certain extent, resembles techiyat ha’meitim (the Resurrection of the Dead) (Ta’anit 7a). The uniqueness of mayim and rain is that they express the chesed ha’Eloki (Divine kindness) that flows to everything equally, as the verse says “You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Psalms, 145:16), and “He gives food to every creature. His love endures forever” (ibid, 136:25) – it flows equally to fruit-bearing and barren trees, to flowers and thorns, to plants and to vegetation, to timid sheep and predatory wolves, to animals and to man, to the righteous and to the wicked – because Hashem created all of them, and each one has value. Therefore, in the wisdom of Kabbalah, mayim expresses the midah of chesed ha’Eloki (Zohar Vol.1, 24:2; Vol. 3, Raya Mehemna, 255:1; Metzudat David of Radbaz, 455).

Mayim and Chesed Precede All

Since chesed is the foundation of everything, in the order of Creation as well, water preceded the creation of all living things (Genesis 1: 1-2). Likewise, our Sages said: “The world was created from the very beginning with chesed, as it says (Psalms 89:3), “Olam chesed yibaneh” (“For I have said that the world will be built on kindness”) (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4).

The origin of Am Yisrael is also rooted in the midah of chesed, and therefore, the unique midah of our first father, Avraham, is midat ha’chesed, who opened his tent to all passers-by, without distinction of race or religion (see, Bava Metzia 86b; Zohar, Vol. 1, 102:1-2).

Thus, in tevila in water, man connects to the root of creation and the nation of Israel – to the idea of chesed which expresses the foundation and meaning of Creation, and as a result, his life is renewed.

The Intention of Tevila

Thus, we find that in tevila, man includes himself in the chesed Eloki that gives life to every living thing and out of this connection, the tumah, deficiencies, and death that clung to him are removed, he is purified, his life intensified, and it is as if he is reborn. Tevila also expresses anava (humility), similar to water that “flows from a higher level to a lower place” (Ta’anit 7a), and consequently, halakha goes according to Beit Hillel, because they were humble and pleasing to people (Eruvin 13b).

Hence, a critique of those who tovel and act self-righteously, who, instead of increasing chesed and showering blessing to all, climb out of the mikveh filled with conceit and self-satisfaction, alienate themselves from Hashem’s creations, and condemn Am Yisrael.

Increase Chesed over Din

The notion that mayim and chesed are the primary foundation is meaningful in all areas of life. This is also expressed in halakha, therefore, when ritually washing one’s hands, water is poured on the right hand first, “so that the right, which alludes to chesed, may overpower the left, which alludes to din (stern judgements)” (SA, OC 4:11; MB 22).

Likewise, when we have a safek (doubt) in a fundamental law, whether to show a preference to the side of chesed, or to the side of din, “koach d’hetera adif” (it is preferable to set forth the view which shows leniency) (Chulin 58a; Nidah 59b).

Even when dealing with a rasha (evil person) whom the Torah commanded be executed in one of the arba mitot beit din (four modes of execution) and the Sages are doubtful as how to execute the judgment, the decision should be made in the easiest way, because the Torah says “love your neighbor as yourself” – and our Sages learned from this “choose an easy death for him” (Sanhedrin 45a; 52a-b, and others).

Similarly, when we find ourselves in a state of conflict between midat ha’din and midat ha’chesed, such as the question of how to relate to non-observant people, and midat ha’din severely accuses against their sins, while midat ha’chesed advocates for the side of their souls, intentions, and good deeds, the ruling is to dune le’kaf zechut (to judge them with the benefit of the doubt) (Shevuot 30a) as the Torah says “Judge your people fairly” (Leviticus 19:15).

Love is the Foundation

Love is the fundamental attitude towards everything, as Maran Rabbi Kook wrote: “The heart must be filled with love for all. The love of all creation comes first, then comes the love for all humankind and then follows the love for the Jewish people, in which all other loves are included, since it is the destiny of the Jews to serve toward the perfection of all things. All of these loves are to be expressed in practical action, by pursuing the welfare of those we are bidden to love, and to seek their advancement, and above them all, the love of God” (Midot Raya: Ahava 1-2).

The mitzvah to reprove sinners stems from love as well, as the Torah says “Do not hate your brother in your heart. You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him… You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am God” (Leviticus 19:18).

Consequently, Maran Rabbi Kook wrote: “Love of humanity must be alive in the heart and in the soul, the love of all people in particular, and desire for their elevation and revival, both spiritual and material, and hatred should be only for the evil and filth in the world… Wherever we find hints of hatred (in the Torah or in the words of our Sages), it is clear that the intention is only on the evil… However, we must know that the aim of life – light and holiness – never moved from the Divine Image endowed to all of mankind, nation, and language, each according to its value, and this sacred nucleus will elevate everything”(ibid., 5).

This is the deep meaning of tevila in a mikveh – a return, out of humility, to the foundation of life and chesed, for the purpose of adding love and blessing to everyday life.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

Leave a Comment