Mikveh: It’s Not Magic

by Carrie Bornstein, Acting Executive Director

With nightfall coming so early during the winter, Shabbat lunch with friends often turns into a lazy post-meal afternoon of exhausted parents sitting around enjoying each other’s company, while their animated young children turn the host’s place upside-down.  Hypothetically speaking, of course.

On one such recent occasion, the next thing we knew, Shabbat was over.  Somewhere between my daughter’s moderately valiant attempt to return play food to its rightful location and search for her little brother’s mis-matched socks, Jamie (my husband) returned with our car, via the ride across town he’d scored from our gracious host.

I changed the last diaper of the day, (finally) found said socks, and we piled the family back into our car to return home.

Minutes later, a puzzled Eliana yelled out, “But Ema! [the only name I can reasonably justify being called by my kids – I couldn’t possibly be a mom, could I?]  Why are we driving in the car?  It’s Shabbat!”

“No, Ellie,” I replied.  “Shabbat is over – you see how it’s dark outside?”

“But we didn’t make havdallah!”  (the brief ceremony that, in our house, transitions us from the holy day of Shabbat to making a beeline for watching Curious George on the computer.)

In that moment, I realized the impact of ritual for my four-year old daughter.  Her cognitive dissonance spoke volumes.

After our subsequent conversation about how we’d do that when we got home, and that havdallah doesn’t cause Shabbat to end, but rather, marks the transition point between Shabbat and the rest of the week, my mind kept going.

Isn’t this just like mikveh?  When a person chooses to immerse prior to Shabbat, at the end of cancer treatment, before their wedding, upon healing from a miscarriage… their immersion does not cause anything to happen.  It does not bring on Shabbat, cause remission, enact marriage, or make the hurt go away.  The water, after all, is not magic.

It can, however, mark a turning point for something that’s already happening.   When I went to the mikveh before my wedding, I unexpectedly felt the enormity of what was about to happen in my life, and suddenly, I was ready.  I’ve seen this sort of thing happen hundreds of times (1,400, roughly) each year at Mayyim Hayyim.  People who say things like, “Now I have the strength to move on after my mourning,” or “I finally feel ready to become a mother.”

There are, of course, some immersions that truly do cause a change.  Immersing for conversion, for example, actually makes a person Jewish.  Immersing for niddah permits two partners to be in physical contact with one another again.  I’m still working on how all this fits into the analogy.  (If you have any thoughts – I’d love to hear them in the comments below.)

In any event, to bring in some wisdom from Rabbi Ferris Bueller, life does move pretty fast.  Whether it’s mikveh, havdallah, or anything else that causes us to stop and look around once in a while, these rituals give us the power to not miss even a single moment.

Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Acting Executive Director.  Follow her on twitter @carolinering.

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About mayyimhayyim

Mayyim Hayyim is a 21st century creation, a mikveh rooted in ancient tradition, reinvented to serve the Jewish community of today
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6 Responses to Mikveh: It’s Not Magic

  1. rabbi neil kominsky says:

    To extend your position a little bit, I’m of the opinion that even the rituals that “change” things are, at bottom, affirmations of what has already come to be the case. If a ger/giyoret has not, for all real purposes, become a Jew internally, there’s no point in the mikveh. If the couple has not created what we would recognize as a marriage bond between them, the marriage ceremony doesn’t make it so. The relevant rituals are important because they signal communal recognition of what has happened–and generally help the individual to wrap his/her mind around the new reality that has developed. The magic, however, is internal.

  2. Very nice – I love the idea that even in these other cases, the actual change exists in some form already even prior to immersion. The “internal magic” thinking is helpful particularly since mikveh is such a personal / private ritual. Which may lead to yet another blog post…

  3. Will Friedman says:

    To encompass conversion/niddah immersion, I think the analogy just needs to be reframed in explicitly psychological terms. For both conversion and niddah, the point is to undergo a ritual to concretely mark crossing a psychological/experiential boundary — from the experience of one’s self as a non-Jew to the experience of one’s self as a Jew, and from the experience of sexual abstinence to sexual permissibility. Why the ritual chosen for those moments is immersion in water is worthy of an extended discussion, but probably has to do with the psychological insight of the old saw “cleanliness is next to Godliness” and the studies linking physical cleanliness with heightened moral sensitivity. (All of this is to complement Rabbi Kominsky’s insight about how mikveh also function as a concrete communal boundary marker as well, although more theoretically given that the community isn’t usually present at immersions.)

    Separately, I think your daughter’s question is what prompted the rabbis to formulate a short havdalah to be said when one needs to do work after Shabbat has ended and before “real” havdalah has been made in ma`ariv and over wine: “Barukh hamavdil bein kodesh lehol.” I think the insight here is that even if Shabbat has ended astronomically, our experience of Shabbat doesn’t end until we mark it in some concrete fashion, and not doing so can be very jarring. (I would go farther and suggest that nothing we do effects any sort of physical or spiritual transformation, and that our rituals are all about impacting our psychologies, but that would take longer to justify.)

  4. Yes – the fact that this ritual is a total combination of the physical and psychological is fascinating to me – which brings me back to that other oft quoted Rabbi, this time the Rambam, if a person immerses but without intention (kavanah) it is as if he (and I’ll add, she) never immersed at all.

  5. Orin says:

    Perhaps the mikveh can be seen as a boundary, and not as a change. One begins on one side of the mikveh experience, and ends on the other. Having emerged on the other side of that experience, one is definitively in a difference place. In some cases, the border delineates two states of being (e.g., in a conversion). In others, it delineates between existence of (or readiness for) a change and acceptance/acknowledgement of change. In all cases, the act of immersion reflects an intention to cross the border, and it is a blessing to the community to have a place where its members can make one.

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