It is impossible for a religiously observant Jewish woman, like myself, to speak about menstruation without discussing mikvah. Some Jewish women do not utilize this amazing, holy and ancient opportunity. Some don't even realize that the opportunity exists. And, of course, some who are reading this are not even Jewish.
As always, all are welcome here. I hope that I will be able to impart a bit of wisdom from the Wise Women of Jewish persuasion by sharing with you here. If you have any questions or would care for some elaboration, please feel free to comment below. And it goes without saying that questions and comments will only be accepted that are framed in a kind and respectful way.
Mikvah is an ancient practice. It is one of the 613 commandments (mitzvot), to which a Jew is obliged but has also come to be regarded as one of the "Big 3 mitzvot" that denote a "religious Jew" (the other two being keeping the Sabbath and keeping Kosher). Basically, this mitzvah tells a Jew that in order to be purified from anything which makes you halachically impure (impure according to Jewish Law), one must immerse oneself in a body of "living waters" which is called a "mikvah." There are myriad reasons why one (man or woman) might need to use a mikvah. There are also many reasons why one would want to use a mikvah (and of course could use a mikvah) though they are not required. But, there is a special blessing that is recited only for immersing in a mikvah in the proper time, according to Jewish Law.
This, for example, would not be the time to use the holy blessing. :)
For our purposes, I would like to focus on just one of the many reasons for mikvah immersion, which happens to be specific to women. And of course, this is menstruation.
Every month/cycle of a married Jewish life flows to the rhythm of the female partner's menstrual cycle. You could say, it's central to the partnership. There are times when the husband and wife dance together and there are times when they dance separately. Let's begin our explanation at the point of separation, also known as menstruation.
The wife begins her monthly (usually) menstrual flow and if she happens to be dancing with her husband at that precise moment, she would stop.
Biblical "purity" does not equate with "dirty" or "clean." Purity was a spiritual purity to serve a religious purpose. It has a meaning for religious acts (of which "marriage relations" is one of the biggies!) but doesn't really have a practical meaning in today's vernacular. It's a bit lofty, a bit up there in the spiritual realm. And yet, the practical application happens to be extremely down to earth. The husband and wife simply don't touch. They refrain from "sexy" talk...or conversations with innuendos. They won't even sit on the other's bed (think 1950's sitcoms with the twin beds in the room, one for each spouse, that's really how it looks in a religious couple's home during the time of menstruation.)
But, they can and do talk. They share their lives with one another but with a profound and sacrosanct respect for the other's individual space. They create a new and slower pace to their "marriage rhythm." The husband might wait up for his wife while she stays up to read a novel. The wife might make a point to go to her bed at the same time as her husband, even though they are not going to the same bed. Both partners seek to create unity in their separateness and get a new rhythm. A new dance.
A Jewish woman knows that she must allow at least 5 days for the bleeding of the menstrual flow. This means that if she bleeds for two days, she will have to wait out the remaining days as if she were still bleeding, regardless of the appearance of actual blood (if you encounter such a situation, it is imperative to consult with your local rabbi so that you can know if this applies to you in your specific circumstance. I'd also be happy to point you in the right direction with this issue, should your situation require). If a woman bleeds for 7 days, that's fine, too. The difference is that she can immediately begin counting her "white days" after the blood has ceased, since she's already met her requisite 5 days for bleeding.
Ah. You thought you were in the clear, did you? Nope! After the Jewish woman has finished her menstrual flow she begins to count 7 "white days" which are literally days without any flow or spotting from the menses. It is only after this period of time that a woman may enter the mikvah.
What this means, practically speaking, is that for at least 12 days, a religiously observant Jewish couple will not touch one another, share a bed, etc... Of course, this could be more than 12 days, depending on how long the menstrual bleeding lasts (before the woman can begin counting the 7 "white days") and if there was any spotting or menstrual bleeding during the "white days" (in which case, she would have to start counting the 7 "white days" again, from the beginning).
Now by the time the woman is ready to immerse herself in the mikvah, both husband and wife are ready to dance together again. They miss the touch of their partner. The embrace. The sex! (well, they do!) So it is a very special time. It is also a very private time, as everybody on the block (or in your community) would know when you were "knockin' boots," if they just happened to walk past the mikvah while you were on your way in. So generally speaking, an aura of secrecy is usually wrapped around this whole ritual.
So, the woman waits until sundown to take off for the mikvah. She grabs her "mikvah" sack and heads out the door, walking or driving to her mikvah of choice. If she is headed to a "modern" mikvah, which most women in Western Society are, she will very much look forward to a relaxed night away from the responsibilities of home.
She may need to have called in advance to make an appointment (which can be done anonymously) or she may arrive during regularly scheduled mikvah hours.
When she arrives, she will usually be met by soft or relaxing music or perhaps silence. She will be shown to a "readying room" by the female attendant responsible for the mikvah that evening called the balanit or attendant (or less colloquially, "Mikvah Lady") where she will set down her sack and make herself at home.
The "ready room" will often times have two parts. One will be a space for quiet reading or prayer and the other will look like a bathroom. There will be a toilet, bathtub and shower. Towels and slippers may or may not be provided (hence the mikvah sack), though soap, shampoo, dental floss, nail polish remover and other toiletries typically are. It is here that the woman is expected to take anywhere from 1-2 hours for her mikvah preparations.
For a woman to immerse in the mikvah, she must be completely free of any barriers that might come between her and the mikvah waters. This means no make-up, nail polish, stray hairs on her back, legs, arms or elsewhere, jewelery, contact lenses, glasses, or clothing. It is here that a woman will strip away any of those barriers that she can see before moving into the tub to soak off the barriers that she can't (ie, dirt, grime or other particles on the body). Many women claim that this process makes them feel sensual and like a princess. If a woman chooses to shave her legs or underarms, she would do that now. She would brush and floss her teeth. She would pumice her heals or loofah off any dry skin. It's a time for the Jewess to pamper herself with warm water and rich, cleansing soaps. It should come as no surprise that mikvah is often confused with a spa treatment.
The attendant will meet her in the mikvah room, which is typically an adjacent room to the ready room. Usually, there is a door leading out from the ready room right into the mikvah room. The women will come into the room wearing, typically, slippers and a towel or bathrobe, for modesty. Many women will turn away from the attendant to open their towel or robe, so they can look down and check that no lint or stray hair has fallen on their front. The mikvah attendant will then check the woman's back for any stray hairs and perhaps help her to check the soles of her feet for any dirt or grime that might have become stuck along the way and once everyone is confident that there are no barriers, the woman will immerse into the mikvah.
The woman will dunk with the attendant watching to both make sure that she doesn't slip, fall, or otherwise get hurt while immersing (basic water safety) but also making sure that all of her hair goes under the surface of the water and that she doesn't touch the walls at the sides while she is immersing. When the woman pops up from her first immersion the attendant will pronounce it "Kosher" and the woman will say the ancient blessing reserved for this holy and sacred occasion. Then she will dunk again as ofter or as few times as she would like, until she is ready to leave the mikvah. At this point the attendant will make sure that she has exited the mikvah safely, usually covering her face with the woman's towel and then handing it to her while turning her head and leaving the room (to preserve modesty). The women will exit from their respective doors (the same which they entered from) and the woman will put on lotions or creams, make-up, jewelry, clothes and whatever else she chooses before exiting the room and leaving a charitable donation on the way out of the building. At this point, the woman returns home to her husband to begin a new dance. The double beds get pushed together. Husband and wife hold hands and giggle like newly weds. Holiness and intimacy is restored in the marriage. It is a very special time.
...And also super fun!
So now let's recap, but do so by overlaying this experience on the calendar of a woman's menses.
Day one is the day of separation.
5 days are the minimum allowed for the bleeding menstrual flow. (For those of you that already use FAM, you may notice the correlation between this and the "first 5 days rule.")
Then 7 days follow of complete and continued abstinence. Mikvah day would be around day 12 of the cycle, but it could be later.
"Neat-o!" You say. And it is. It's such a sophisticated understanding of a woman's cycle, fertility and need to have some private time to nurture herself so that she can feel "ready" to maximise her baby making potential, should she so desire. Imagine how helpful this would be for couples going through the endless rigors of infertility. So many couples complain that sex is a chore, but if they had the separation as a bit of incentive, perhaps it would all feel a bit more organic.
But there are problems. One of the biggest is that some women are ovulating before they get to the mikvah.
For many, they loose hope right here, never realizing that there are things that they can do to eliminate the problem.
I have helped many to delay their ovulation, naturally, so that they are able to go on to conceive quickly and easily. With G-d's Help, I hope to continue to facilitate this in those who need the remedy.