As part of the preparation for receiving the Torah, HaShem tells Moshe that the people need to sanctify themselves and wash their garments (Shemot 19:10). The Rambam explains that this refers to tevila, immersion in a mikveh. This immersion in which the Jewish people entered the covenant is the precedent for the immersion in which each convert enters the covenant of the Torah (Rambam, Isurei Biah 13:3).
While we often think of a mikveh as a means of purification, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out that it is more precisely a means of transformation. After all, the prospectve convert bears no particular kind of defilement. Dishes acquired from a non-Jew do not necessarily have any tuma yet these also require immersion (Waters of Eden). The Tosafot call this an immersion of “renewal”, and seem to imply that the immersion of a nida is also of this kind (Tosafot Avoda Zara 75b “Mayim”).
This understanding of tevila can give us a new insight into many halakhot.
ALL OR NOTHING
One important law is that the entire body must be submerged at once. The Torah tells us that a Kohen who is tamei may not eat sacrifices “until he washes his flesh in water. And when the sun sets he shall be pure, then he may eat of the sacrifices” (Vayikra 22:6-7). Our Sages asked, “Could it be enough for him to wash himself one limb at a time? The verse says ‘And when the sun sets he shall be pure’. Just as the entire sun sets, so the entire body must be in the water at once” (Sifra Emor).
Day and night are not merely relative states of more or less light; rather, we experience them as polar opposites. Just as the sunset ushers in an entirely new period of the day, so the immersion is meant to effect a total change in the status of the person.
A person can improve himself little by little, but he can not transform himself little by little. Changing the entire self is a revolutionary act, symbolized by immersing the entire body.
NO HOLDING BACK
The Torah also tells us that the person has to immerse all of his body in the water (Vayikra 15:16). This means that there must not be any significant interpositions, or chatzitzot (Eiruvin 4b). Having any part of the body covered during tevila shows that there is a resistance to this transformation – there are some parts of the body which we are not willing to have the water reach.
Symbolically, this represents that the person has some aspects of the old self which he or she is unwilling to transform. Again, this does not stand in the way of improvement, which is an incremental process. But renewal is all-or-nothing; so even a single interposition can invalidate the entire immersion.
Viewed from this angle, the halakha’s surprisingly extensive and detailed enumeration of the different kind of interpositions, which is reflected in practice by an extensive and detailed examination which must be carried out in the mikveh before immersion (SA YD 198), symbolizes the minute and encompassing inspection of deeds which is necessary in order to truly make ourselves into new and better human beings.
A Mikveh may not be a Vessel
The mikveh must be dug into the ground or built into a permanent building. A bathtub or similar moveable vessel is not a kosher mikveh, even if it is permanently attached to the ground (SA YD 201:6). Furthermore, the water itself can not have been drawn with a vessel, even if afterwards it is poured into the mikveh (SA YD 201:3).
The requirement for a vessel represents a demand for human participation and intervention. A vessel is made and controlled by man and holds a particular measured quantity; this symbolizes Divine influence which is expressed in a way which is subject to our limited analysis and comprehension.
Washing hands for a meal (or when we awaken) must in general be done from a vessel and by human effort (SA OC 4, 159), showing that this kind of purification requires our participation. Washing hands is precisely not a transformation; it is a conscious process of purifying one aspect of ourselves (Since the hands represent our contact with the outside world, washing them can represent a commitment to improve our acts). Of course we need HaShem’s help to do this, and this is the symbolism of the natural water.
But the immersion of the mikveh may not be in a vessel or with drawn water. Our Sages say “A prisoner can’t release himself from prison” (Berakhot 5b); likewise, a person can improve some aspect of himself but not recreate his entire being. He must immerse in natural water which is collected in the earth, showing that the entire process of renewal is outside of his power. It is in the hands of HaShem.
BACK TO THE WOMB
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan suggests that the mikveh is like a womb. Like the womb, the mikveh is a water-filled place which envelops us, and in which we are unable to live with our own powers. Even the scrunched-up posture which we assume during immersion resembles the posture of the fetus in the womb (SA YD 198:35).
This is the most potent expression of all of the idea that immersion in the mikveh is a process of renewal and rebirth, when new life is granted us from a Source beyond ourselves (Waters of Eden). The idea of a rebirth before Mattan Torah is reflected also in the Midrash that at the word of HaShem the souls of the children of Israel departed, and were then restored (Shir HaShirim Rabba on Shir HaShirim 5:16).
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.
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The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.