Ritual immersion in a mikveh, or body of living water, is an ancient part of Jewish tradition. Among observant Jews it is required for converts to Judaism, for brides, and for women who practice family purity, who immerse monthly.
Mikvehs can also be used for other purposes, most often by men before Shabbat or holidays. In North America, a network of community mikvehs, open to all Jews, encourages immersion for a wide variety of spiritual purposes, to celebrate or to mourn a significant change in status: a first trip to Israel; recovery from cancer; births or deaths in the family.
Aliza Kline is the executive director of Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh in Newton, Mass., a pioneering facility and educational center that spearheads the growing movement of community mikvehs. In this essay, she describes the beauty of ritual immersion before a holiday such as Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Because it is not a commandment to immerse on these occasions, there is no specific blessing, but the Mayyim Hayyim website offers a kavannah, or intention, to recite in order to enhance the experience:
“Ready or not…here I come!” As the mother of three girls, this is a familiar refrain in my household. When we play, I think about my own childhood experiences playing hide and seek…the anxiety of being the “hider,” the search beginning before I was “ready.”
The chagim are coming, ready or not. Every year, I remember to get ready a little too late, sometimes not until halfway through the liturgy on Rosh Hashanah. I need to schedule a reminder on my Google calendar, “Don’t forget to prepare your soul for the New Year!”
As the director of a mikveh, I’d prefer a splash of water. Of course, there’s tashlich – tossing crumbs into water, symbolically casting away sins. But that often feels like taking inventory of my shortcomings. I don’t feel transformed afterward; in fact, sometimes I feel rotten.
My friend Rabbi Dan Judson taught me about a Kurdish tradition of full-body tashlich, throwing your whole self into water. Given my job, this is especially appealing.
So, this year, I will prepare for the chagim by blocking out an hour in my crazy schedule for an immersion. I will prepare slowly and thoughtfully, removing all obstacles between myself and the water. I will reflect on the stuff I’d like to release, ask forgiveness for repeating myself every year, and let myself sink in.
Maybe because it is so complete, maybe because it requires my whole self…
After this ritual, I know that I will be awake.
Mayyim Hayyim will hold “Gathering the Waters,” its fifth international mikveh conference Oct. 10-12 in Newton, Mass. Registration is still open.