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.

Like menstruation, mikvah is cycular. There is no end or beginning. Think of it as a dance.
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.

For, you see, when a woman menstruates, she becomes totally off limits to her husband...and only her husband. All other relationships remain completely the same. It's as if a magical spell is suddenly cast over the husband and wife, where they are no longer allowed to hug, kiss, pass the butter to or even touch one another. They are completely forbidden from any physical contact. (And it goes without saying that intimate relations are completely unthinkable!) Many have the mistaken notion that this is because a woman is "impure." Somehow the truth must have become lost in translation. A woman is not "impure," as many great rabbis have taught us. At least, not in any way we can understand with words.

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.

First of all, mikvah immersion happens under the cover of darkness. There are a few reasons for that. One is that, before the "modern mikvah" was created (bringing "living waters" into the safety, privacy and security of a building), women would need to go to a natural body of water for immersion. Because a woman needs to fully undress to immerse and was completely open to the elements (and prying eyes), the darker the better. Even now, when using a mikvah in a building, many women don't want to be seen coming or going. The cover of darkness takes care of much of that. But nighttime also signifies the beginning of a new Jewish day in the Jewish calendar. Going to the mikvah in the evening is a way of starting off the day on the right foot, so to speak. (Or, the halachic precept to not delay in the performance of a mitzvah) Of course, nighttime is the most convenient time (for many) for sexual relations and for a husband and wife who have been off limits to one another for in the ballpark of about two weeks, they are probably going to want to become reacquainted as quickly as possible, post-mikvah. This timing makes that really convenient.

No, Susie! You can't use your snorkel in the mikvah.
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.

After the woman has completed her bath, she will have a final, quick shower to rinse away any left over hairs or debris. She will comb through her hair and check that, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet, there are no barriers. When she is fully ready to immerse she will signal the attendant (this is often times done with a bell) that she is ready to immerse in the mivkah.

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 mikvah, incidentally, will appear to most women to be like a miniature swimming pool. There are specific measurements that the mikvah must adhere to for it to be a kosher mikvah. Typically the water is fairly deep, (the woman's breasts should be covered completely while standing at the deepest part) but also wide enough that the woman can dunk her body under the water without touching any of the walls around her. The mikvah will even have the familiar chlorine smell of a swimming pool. It will also, usually, be heated to a comfortable temperature. Because of the elaborate preparations, upkeep, and extreme importance in Judaism (a Jewish community is commanded to build a mikvah even before building a synagogue!) mikvot are almost always impeccably clean.

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.

In the Western Medical Model, the "perfect" cycle is 28 days with ovulation occurring on day 14. This, of course, would get a woman to the mikvah 2 days before that, at the earliest, which should provide a bit of wiggle room for those ovulating a bit earlier. This means that women are coming home from the mikvah around the time that they should just be coming into their fertile phase. The couple has complete freedom and access to intimacy during this time and all of the days leading up to the reappearance of the menstrual flow.

"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.

And this brings us full circle, both in the cycle of a woman and in the Menstruation Series here at Wise Woman. I hope that you enjoyed learning a bit about the miracle of menstruation and what you can do to improve your health and fertility in relation to your cycle.


adalia salomaa said...

Thank you for sharing this Rivkah! WOW, it came at perfect timing for me. I decided last evening to use for my first time a mikvah...and I will use the one in the Old City of Tzfat tonight. A New Begining :) Your article really calms any fears and answers many questions.

Medicine Woman said...

Just remember that unless you are about to be married or already married to a Jewish man, then you should NOT say the bracha (blessing)! :)

Of course, barring the two listed situations above, this would be a fine example of one of those times when you can use the mikvah and say any sort of prayer that you wish, but should not use the formulaic holy blessing.

Enjoy your experience!

Anonymous said...

How would this work if... A. Not Jewish... B. Woman doesn't have her cycle back because of breastfeeding babe? Loved the info! Thanks!

Medicine Woman said...

If a woman is not Jewish but would like to incorperate some of Mikvah into her life, she might be able to do this by using a bathtub, swimming pool or even a natural body of water. She would not be governed in any way by the Halachic issues surrounding Mikvah because she is not Jewish and does not need to adhere to Jewish Law.

In the case of not having a menses, for the non-Jewish woman who would like a bit of time/seperation from her spouse, I would recommend talking to your partner about it. Let him know that you would appriciate some time apart. Since you are not Jewish or menstruating, you can make up the rules for this. You might choose to have 1 week off limits to one another. Or 3 days. You can take this as far or not as far as you wish...from not touching one another, but still sleeping in the same bed, to cuddling and kissing but not going further than that. YOU can set the rules for yourselves, if you would like to give it a try or even work up to the practice.

Again, the practice is specifically for Jewish Women. If you are not Jewish or if you have a non-Jewish spouse, the laws of Mikvah do not apply so you have the freedom to create your own ritual. :)

Thanks for writing in and please let me know if that answered your question or if you would like to know more.

An additional note, a Jewish breastfeeding or otherwise non-menstruating woman would NOT be going to the mikvah. She would only use this practice when she regained her menstrual cycles.

Anonymous said...

yes! you answered the questions perfectly... now I just need to figure out how to get preggo without weening my little man;)

Medicine Woman said...

I'm glad I understood your questions correctly and was able to help!

As for getting pregnant while nursing, I am available for private consultation. You can reach me at wisewomanfertility@gmail.com and I'd be happy to schedule an appointment.

Until then, if you haven't already, you should DEFINATELY pick up a copy of "Taking Charge of Your Fertility." If you scroll down on the blog page, you will see a link to this book in the Amazon Carousel below. It should be the book in the center.

Because we ovulate BEFORE we get our periods, knowing your fertility signs would let you maximise your chances of getting pregnant, even before you get your first post partum period! And in private consultation, I would walk you through some of the highlighs in the book, teach you practical application, and also talk about your specific history and situation so that we know what is most safe and effective to try to help you concieve.

All In Good Health,

J. Rivkah

duckfeather said...

I arrived at this site while researching menstrual cups, and ended up completely transfixed by your description of the mikvah. I live in Brooklyn, in an area where there are many Orthodox Jewish families... it's not uncommon to see couples taking romantic strolls after midnight, which I always thought was cute. Nevertheless, Judaism is largely a mystery, I think, to non-practitioners. This might well be the preference of the Orthodox Jews in my community. But I've got to say, the mikvah seems like a fascinating and beautiful tradition, and I'm so glad you shared it!

I'm also thankful that you acknowledged the misconception that any tradition separating women during their menses implies shame or dirtiness. The mikvah seems like it gives a woman full control and awareness of her own body during her menses, instead of doing everything she can to pretend it isn't happening (which seems frequently to be the Western approach).

I love that the separation ends with this solitary spiritual ablution... it reminds me of a fertility ritual I had the honor of observing in Varanasi called Lolark Shasthi. On a certain day of the year, childless wives travel to this deep-set well surrounded by three sets of stairs. They shed all their clothing and jewelry as they descend the stairs, and let down their hair before dipping themselves into the well. For months afterward, the steps are strewn with colorful shards of broken bangles and bits of sari cloth. Years later, I still get a little overwhelmed when I think about it.

This goes for both sexes, but I believe that women in particular stand to gain tremendously from taking time to tend to their bodies. Thanks again for sharing -- there are lessons here for everyone!

Anonymous said...

You mention at the end that you can help delay ovulation. That is just what I need. I have a period that ranges from 23 to 28 days. I have tried many herbal remedies and even birth control, but as soon as I stop using them the cycle shortens again. I am also upset because The time that I experience the greatest desire for my husband is usually sometime in the middle of counting the 7 clean days, and it is frustrating that I cannot be with him. I assume that that must be the time that I am ovulating. Do you have any suggestions for me? Please don't print my e-mail address, people may recognize my name.

Medicine Woman said...


Your email was not listed in your comment, so no danger of that.:)

You are welcome to privately email me at wisewomanfertility@gmail.com to set up a consultation appointment. In the meanwhile, please have a look around at the other blogs. Particularly http://wisewomanfertility.blogspot.com/2011/05/what-do-you-do-for.html where I answer the question you are asking...that there are no "pat" answers, unfortunately, in holistic healthcare.

Here is another article I wrote for Nishmat about Halachic Infertility, that may be of interest to you: http://www.yoatzot.org/article.php?id=187

With Blessings for Good Health and Fertility.

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