Erev Shabbat, Going to Mikveh and Other Friday Mullings

It’s Erev Shabbat, or Friday afternoon heading into Friday evening, just before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sun down. I have no cleaning lady coming today. I have to leave to get my children at 2:30. I am still working at noon and there is no chance that I will get around to Shabbat preparations like housecleaning, before I leave. I’ll be lucky to get the challah started or even begin on dinner. Yet, it is time to prepare for the Sabbath, a day that should be focused on God, but during which I know I will be busy taking my kids hither and yon. So, what’s a nice Jewish girl – and one who writes about the Sabbath and the importance of creating sanctuaries in time – supposed to do? Create as much Sabbath as I can.

I’ll wipe off the sinks and toilets, put a white tablecloth on the dining room table, change the sheets on the bed, throw some stuff in the bread maker, stick some chicken in a pan to cook, pile up the stuff on the kitchen counter, and quick run a vacuum around….or I’ll at least try to do some of this. It will be my intention, my kavanah. No matter what, a nice dinner will be served on a table set nicely. Challah will appear – round for this season. The house may not be clean, the beds not necessarily changed, but when my family is all home, we will sit down to a nice meal together after lighting the candles and saying blessings. We’ll let the week go, say a prayer, and then strike the match… Maybe we’ll discuss this weeks Torah portion…maybe just talk and enjoy each other’s company. We will remember the Sabbath and observe it to the best of our ability over the next 24 hours.

And why will I do all this? Well, it is traditional to prepare your home on Shabbat as if you are welcoming in an important guest…the Shechinah, the feminine aspect of God, or simply God. And why must the women do the work? Well, if there is only a man at home, it becomes his job, but traditionally, Jewish women have been the creators of sacred space and sanctuaries in time. This is our role, our sacred duty. It shouldn’t be seen as drudgery, not simply as house work, but as spiritual preparation for the whole family to enjoy. We create the space within which holy rituals and practices and prayers take place. We make that happen by creating a sanctuary within which time can stop for a little while…24 hours…and within which we can place God and thoughts of spiritual and sacred things. Maybe we find this in our daily life – if we are really lucky, but most of us go through most of week without thinking so much about God. Shabbat asks us to remember the difference between the sacred and the profane, the extra-ordinary and the ordinary, so we will see and experience God on the Sabbath and then be more aware of the sacred during the other six days. Women have a truly wonderful job when it comes to Sabbath preparations, and we should embrace it. Well, I know sometimes that is a bit difficult, but seeing housework as holy work does help…

I read an article today (from last week’s Forward) about Conservative rabbis basically saying that Conservative Jewish women should visit the mikveh, or ritual bath, after the end of their menstrual cycle and should abstain from sex for seven days after that as well. Many Jewish women realize that this is an Orthodox practice still upheld by many Jewish women. Some less religious and observant may even like going to the mikveh for this reason, but in this day and age, asking women to abstain from sex for two weeks out of the month seems pretty tough. Many women travel and aren’t with their life partner that often or can’t get to a mikveh while out of town. Sometimes we are too busy or tired to have sex during the two “approved of” weeks of the month. And what if there is no mikveh available? I could go to the ocean, but you won’t find me immersing myself three times in the frigid waters of Northern California’s Pacific Coast. I’ve thought about it…(I’m menstruating at the moment…seems with the onset of peri-menopause I do so at all sorts of times and for all sorts of lengths of time. If I had to go to the mikveh and abstain from sex because I was impure during and after my period, I’d be there all the time and I’d never make love to my husband!)

Plus, putting restrictions on when we can and can’t have sex and telling us we have one more thing we have to do will make many Conservative Jewish women seek other paths for expressing their Judaism. All too often, we’ve seen what putting restrictions on things and making things harder does to people – it sends them running the other way. Judaism has lost a lot of Jews to other, more-allowing spiritual paths already.

In addition, in the most recent past women have found many reasons to go to the mikveh and to create rituals during which a trip to the mikveh is meaningful for them. Why not let them grow into their use of the mikveh – especially those who have not used one in the past – in nontraditional ways so they…maybe…start wanting to use it for more traditional purposes? I say, let Jewish women use the mikveh in ways that are meaning-full and spirit-full for them.

In addition, and probably most importantly, these Conservative rabbis are reiterating a message to women that has come down through the ages and been despised by more modern women. They are telling Jewish women to use the mikveh after their menstrual cycles and to abstain from sex for two weeks because during that two-week period they are “impure.” If women’s menstrual cycle makes them impure, then what does that say about their ability to have children? This is how they perpetuate the lineage, the faith. Without a menstrual cycle, there would be no children. God gave women this ability as a gift, a divine role, a sacred and holy thing that women, not men, can do. We bring life into the world. How can this make us impure? The whole idea is archaic and chauvinistic…and, well, wrong.

Now, I don’t consider myself a feminist. I believe in equal rights for all, mind you. I wasn’t happy this summer when I was stuck in quiet, non-communal worship on the women’s side of the mechitsa at the Western Wall on Friday night while my husband and son danced and sang on the other side with a huge assortment of men. Yet, you won’t often find me on a soap box preaching about equality for women. That said, I’m all for women taking back their role as prophetesses and creators of sacred space and sanctuaries in time. I’m all for Rosh Chodesh groups and women creating rites, rituals and prayers. I’m all for Jewish women seeing themselves in the, albeit, untraditional role of “priestess” particularly over their homes and over women’s groups of all sorts. Indeed, it is here we have traditionally been the ones to create sacred space and to preside over rituals and prayers, such as on the Sabbath and at Passover.

So, is there a way to incorporate this mikveh idea and not make Jewish women impure or force them to do something they don’t want to do, can’t do or find themselves unable to do? Yes. Imagine yourself going to the mikveh…a lake, an ocean, a stream, or a ritual bath at your synagogue. Visualize the process…if you know it (Otherwise, learn what it is first!)…and then do this whenever you like. I’ll do it later today, to prepare for Shabbat, another traditional time to visit the mikveh. I’ll see myself entering the (warm) ocean waters, dipping three times, saying three blessings, cleansing myself spiritually for the Sabbath.

But for right now, I need to finish my work. The work week is not yet over. I have a few hours left!

(If you are Christian, you’ve got a whole day left! You can still think about the usefulness of any type of mikveh for your own purposes and how you prepare for your Sunday Sabbath.)

2 thoughts on “Erev Shabbat, Going to Mikveh and Other Friday Mullings”

  1. Nina- Your points are interesting, but I have a couple of concerns. First of all, I don’t think that when the Rabbinical Assembly came out and said that women should go to the mikveh that they were doing anything more than officially codifying a law that already exists. Most Conservative Jews don’t keep strictly kosher. If the RA came out (again) and said that Conservative Jews should keep kosher, would that cause people to leave the movement?

    Most people are Conservative not because of ideology, but because they enjoy the style of services. They want to go to a “traditional” service, with Hebrew, and yet sit with their family.

    I’m also not so clear on what your objection is. You want to be able to go to the mikveh when you decide? And not when it is imposed upon you? That makes sense, but in terms of halakha is not correct. If you either don’t feel bound by the halakha, or do not feel like you are ready/willing to accept this particular set of laws upon you, that is your perogative. However, you have to be very careful not to impose meanings on it that do not exist. Unlike kashrut, the laws as pertain to mikveh are fairly clearly rooted in the text. It says in the torah do not have sex with a niddah. Also you have to keep in mind that the words “tahor” and “tamei” while best translated as pure and impure mean only purity as pertains to ritual, as opposed to the layers of meaning that exist in English.

    For the record, some women DO visit the mikveh on Friday afternoons, also before chagim. This “reclaiming” of mikveh, while not common, is accepted, at least within the Masorti movement in Israel.

  2. Nina- I understand the desire to use Jewish ritual in ways that are meaningful and spiritual. The practice of women going to the mikveh at times other than niddah is not unheard of. I know some women of the Masorti movement in Israel who go erev shabbat, and also erev chag.

    That said, when the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly says that Conservative women should observe the laws of niddah, they are not creating a new law, nor taking a new stand. That said, just because the RA says it doesn’t mean that it will in any way affect people’s practice. I don’t think that it will cause people to seek another form of Judaism. For instance, the RA is pretty clear on its stance on kashrut (you should keep it), yet something like 10% of the Conservative movement keeps a kosher home. Most Conservative Jews are Conservative because they enjoy the service style, not because of the ideology or approach towards halakha.

    Your objections to the practice of mikveh are understandable. If you do not feel bound by halakha, or that you are not ready/willing to accept this particular set of laws, well that is your perogative. However, you read into it things that I cannot agree with. First and foremost, the use of mikveh doesn’t make Jewish women impure. Lots of things make people impure, we just don’t go to the mikveh for most of them any more, since we no longer need to enter the temple. Is it unfair? Yes. However it is also pretty clear that the need to observe niddah comes directly from the Torah. This is not a case of Rabbis “putting restrictions on what we can and cannot do.” The restrictions have existed for thousands of years. I doubt that THIS will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back in terms of observance. Even many Orthodox people, who believe that you should observe niddah, don’t do it.

    Also, the laws of nearly are clearly designed to restrict sex to the time when a woman is most fertile. So? The first positive commandment in the Torah is “pru ur’vu” you should be fruitful and multiply. Clearly this is a major Jewish value. And if there is no mikveh nearby? Well, there is a reason that Orthodox (and traditionally observant) Jews tend to live in a few communities, so that they can have access to the things they need to live their lives according to ritual.

    As for being tired during the two weeks, or away, or busy, or whatever. I could give you the pat answer from “The Magic Touch” (one of the world’s worst Mussar books) that the enforced seperation helps keep the spark in a marriage. I don’t know that I believe that, but I also think that if I was seperated for two weeks (I am unmarried) that I would probably be willing to lose a little sleep.

    An interesting depiction of mikveh can be found in the movie Tehora, an Israeli film that deals with a lot of the issues inherent in the subject.

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