According to the Torah, any time a person becomes “tamay”(ritually impure), he or she must immerse in the mikvah in order to return to being “tahor”(ritually pure). “Tum’ah” (ritually impurity) does not mean that someone is unclean or unholy in any way. Rather, it is a different spiritual state that is generally brought about by coming into contact with death or something associated with loss of life. In the days of the Temple, a person who was “tamay” (or “tamay’ah” in the feminine form) could not enter the building or its grounds. Today, when there is no longer a Temple, there is generally no practical ramification of the “tum’ah” status.
The exception to this is a menstruating woman (“niddah”). She becomes “tamay’ah” (ritually impure), possibly because of the association of a monthly period with the loss of an egg and a potential life. A woman today immerses in the mikvah not because she will be visiting the holy Temple and needs to be pure, but because the Torah prohibits physical intimacy when a woman is a niddah. By immersing in the mikvah, a woman becomes “tehorah,” and a couple are now permitted to be physically close.
While mikvah does not serve the same ritual purpose for men in modern times that it does for women, many men customarily immerse at various times during the Jewish year. There is a widespread custom to immerse before each of the High Holy Days, with some men immersing before their weddings, major holidays, or even every Sabbath. Immersion also is the final step for both genders upon conversion to Judaism.
A mikvah must be constructed with a certain amount of naturally collected rainwater. Jewish law dictates that a pool of water that communicates with this primary mikvah also gains its status of a kosher mikvah. In a modern mikvah, immersion is typically done in a pool of fresh, chlorinated tap water that is allowed to communicate with the primary rainwater reservoir.
During immersion, a woman’s entire body and all of her hair come into contact with the mikvah water, without any barriers. She recites the blessing, “asher kiddeshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu al ha-tevilah,” “Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us on immersion.” There are different customs as to whether this blessing should be recited outside of the actual water before a woman immerses (Sephardic) or after a woman immerses while she is still standing in the water (Ashkenazic). Some women also immerse additional times or recite additional prayers.
In my role as a yoetzet halacha, I serve as both a consultant and an educator regarding the laws of niddah. My goal is not only to counsel women about their particular situations but to also give them a greater sense of control over their own lives and the ability to ask better questions. My greatest hope is to engender positive feelings about the laws of niddah, about the sensitivity of rabbis, and about the inner workings of Jewish law so that couples can observe these laws with greater commitment and without resentment.