Some visitors to Israel finding mikvah immersion provides purification for holidays

On the first day of her holiday and happy to be back once more in the Promised Land, the woman walks out of her hotel bedroom and takes the elevator down to the bottom floor. She has purposely booked into a hotel as close as possible to the Old City — the Dan Pearl — in order to experience the pervasive atmosphere and spirit of the holiest spot in Judaism.

The woman smiles at the attendant, takes a towel and enters one of the bathrooms. She locks the door behind her and slowly undresses. She sits down on the chair facing the mirror. She takes off her necklace and her earrings and places them on the adjoining table. A shelf above the table is lined with containers of cotton swabs, toothpicks, combs, a bottle of acetone and cotton balls. She knows there must be nothing between her body and the waters of the mikvah – no food, no dirt, and no foreign substances. She picks up a cotton swab and cleans her ears. She takes another one and cleans out her navel.

Discarding the swabs in the trashcan, she picks out a toothpick and cleans the spaces between her teeth. Next, she takes nail clippers and methodically clips short the nails of her hands and of her feet. She ignores the acetone and the cotton balls, as she never wears nail polish. She looks at her reflection in the mirror. Satisfied, she begins to draw the waters of the bathtub. She adds two handfuls of liquid soap to the water. When the water level is high enough she steps into the tub, and stretches out in the relaxing, cleansing bath.

Fifteen minutes later, after removing all the dry skin from her feet and hands she showers and steps out of the tub. After combing her hair and looking herself over one last time to ensure she is perfectly clean, she rings the bell. Moments later there is a knock on the inner door. "Please come," says the attendant.

The woman covers herself with the towel and opens the door. She enters the mikvah poolroom which has the appearance of an underground cavern dug out of the Old City. Enhancing this feeling is the solid bedrock wall surrounding the swimming pool and hotel whirlpool bath, which is in keeping with the specifications of Jewish law that state a mikvah must be built into the ground or as an essential part of a building.

The room is small, tiled from floor to ceiling. She is standing on a short platform bordered by a railing. To her left are stairs leading down into the mikvah pool. If she leans over the railing she can see two holes in the bottom corners of the pool. Through these holes flow the rainwater from the hotel's rain receptacle to the mikvah pools, thus making the mikvah waters "living" waters.

The Rabbinate-authorized attendant delicately checks her body for stray hairs or foreign substances. She then checks her fingers and her toes and the soles of her feet. Satisfied, she ushers the woman to the stairs. The woman hands her towel to the attendant and walks slowly down the stairs and into the pool.

Many tourists visit Israel during the High Holy Days, but not all of them are aware of the connection between the mikvah and Rosh Hashanah — that is, the themes of rebirth, revitalization, consecration and repentance, when one "washes away" one's spiritual ills. Outside of Orthodox circles, the mikvah experience is one of the least known and appreciated of any of the Jewish rituals. Yet according to Jewish law, building a mikvah takes precedence even over building a synagogue.

Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a new year and is the birthday of Adam and Eve, the progenitors of humanity. It is also the Lord's Coronation Day and the Day of Judgment, when all living souls pass before God and are judged for the coming year.

Rosh Hashanah is also the first of the Ten Days of Awe where through repentance, charity and prayer we plead for divine mercy. The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the days when God is easiest to find, when re-connecting with Him takes precedence over mundane affairs and when "washing away" our spiritual troubles is possible.

Our fate, decided upon on Rosh Hashanah, is sealed only 10 days later on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Rebirth, revitalization and purification are not limited to the High Holy Days. "The mikvah offers the individual, the community and the nation of Israel the remarkable gift of purity and holiness," writes Rivkah Slonim in her book "Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology." The operable word here is "gift." It is traditionally believed that the world's natural bodies of water flow from a divine source and thus have the power to purify. Jewish law provides the exact specifications of mikvah construction needed to harness this power.

The Israelites immersed themselves in a mikvah in preparation for receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. The first step in the consecration of Aaron and his sons as Cohenim (priests) involved immersion in a mikvah. In ancient times, when the Holy Temple stood, the mikvah was used for ritual purification. A person in the spiritual state of impurity (tomeh) was forbidden to enter the grounds of the Holy Temple. The process of purification differed according to each impurity, but the cumulative act required by all processes was immersion in a mikvah. On Yom Kippur, the only day of the year he would enter the Holy of Holies, the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) was required to change his vestments five times, and immerse himself in a mikvah before each change.

Today, mikvah immersion is a central feature in the conversion process and is the cornerstone of family purity laws. New pots and pans, purchased from or manufactured by non-Jews, are immersed in mikvah waters before they are used by a Jew. Pouring of water from a mikvah over a corpse is an integral part of the purification rite of a Jew before the body is laid to rest.

Some Chassidic men customarily immerse themselves in the mikvah before each Shabbat and holiday, as does a groom on his wedding day, and many men immerse themselves before Yom Kippur.

The mitzvah of mikvah immersion belongs in the category of chokkim — laws considered unfathomable to the human intellect and understanding. Even so, there are many intuitively gained insights. Slonim writes: "Immersion in the mikvah can be understood as a symbolic act of self-abnegation, the conscious suspension of the self as an autonomous force. In so doing, the immersing signals a desire to achieve oneness with the Source of all life, to return to a primeval unity with God."

Sounds an awful lot like the repentance process, doesn't it? In truth, mikvah immersion and repentance can be said to be twin versions of the same mitzvah. While one involves the physical (mikvah), the other involves the spiritual (repentance). Interestingly, the performance of either of these processes is invalid if we are not perfectly clean beforehand. A speck of dirt, a stray hair, anything false (teeth, for instance) will nullify our immersion. Avoidance of confession, refusal to apologize, a falsehood (lying, for instance) will nullify our repentance.

We don't have to believe in mikvah immersion or in repentance to benefit from these processes. All we have to do is do them as best we can. May your High Holy Days be revitalizing!