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5 Things I Learned About Being a Woman From Visiting the Mikvah

5 Things I Learned About Being a Woman From Visiting the Mikvah

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1. Listen to My Body

When I was 10 weeks pregnant, I was bent over with excruciating abdominal cramps. I frantically dialed my midwife. “Lie down, Rochel, and try to relax,” she told me. “Your body knows what to do. Trust your body.”

As counterintuitive as it may have seemed—my body was aborting the fledgling fetus growing inside of me!—I knew she was right. And I surrendered to the pulsating waves of contractions.

After years of keeping Taharat HaMishpachah (Family Purity, the laws that govern marital intimacy), I’ve learned to listen to my body’s cues. According to these laws, when a woman begins her menstrual cycle, she and her husband don’t touch each other for around two weeks (the time of her flow plus one additional week). After a woman immerses in a mikvah (ritual bath), they reunite, until her cycle begins again.

Other than humans, very few primates menstruate. Most mammals either reabsorb the blood that lines the uterus, or maintain it until pregnancy occurs. Women lose a lot of blood and tissue every month during menstruation, and biologists can only guess as to why the body seems so inefficient.

Of course, if you look through a G‑dly lens, you can see the absolute beauty and divine brilliance of the human menstrual cycle—it hardwires marriage with a natural system of separation and reunion.1 We don’t need to guess at when we need to pull back; we just need to listen to our body.

Like a human heartbeat, the universe has a natural pulse, an ebb and a flow. When the prophet Ezekiel describes G‑d’s supernal chariot, he says, “The angels were running and returning like the vision of a bolt of fire.”2 These angels are called chayot, which comes from the word chai, “life.” To run forward and retreat backward, explain the chassidic masters, is the pulse of life. In our relationship with G‑d, the “run” is the warmth of spiritual fulfilment, while the “return” grounds us with a practical mitzvah. In a relationship with another, passion makes us run closer to the other person, while returning creates boundaries. Together, “run” and “return” create balance.

Inherent within a woman’s body is the guided choreography of a G‑d-centered marriage.

2. Think Big

It’s hard to remember that there is more to life than getting my kids to brush their teeth. Or get dressed for school. Or do their homework. So much of my energy goes into just keeping them functional. But I hope that won’t be my legacy.

Parenting is about more than getting the kids from point A to B. Parenting means cultivating people with emotional intelligence, a strong moral compass and a healthy attitude—and most of all, soulful people concerned with their G‑d-given mission.

But it’s hard to think big when teeth need to be brushed.

The mitzvah of Taharat HaMishpachah revolves around a woman’s immersion in the mikvah and subsequent purity.3 No one else immerses and becomes pure, not her husband or her children. So why is it called “Family Purity” and not Taharat HaIshah, “Woman’s Purity”?

The name of the mitzvah is telling. The mikvah is not about her, it’s about the family unit. Yes, she’s the one who ensures that her flow has stopped for seven days,4 and she’s the one who prepares for immersion; but the goal is bringing G‑d into the home.5 If a child is conceived after she’s gone to the mikvah (before her new flow begins), that child is positively affected. It takes her only a few minutes to immerse, but her child is impacted for life. Talk about forward thinking.

I think we often underestimate our long-term impact on others. In describing the woman of valor, King Solomon writes, “She watches the ways of her household.”6 The woman is concerned not just about where her children are going tomorrow, but where they are going in 20 years. “She doesn’t eat the bread of laziness,” he continues. She’s not passive when it comes to her long-term impact.

3. Pull Back

There’s an art to pulling back. While fashion magazines may illustrate the art of seduction and exposition, they often neglect to showcase the art of modesty. Modesty breeds respect. A conservative outfit says, “Hey, don’t look at me like that; take me seriously!”

When a girl is too available and exposed, she compromises some of her dignity. She is sending a message that she needs a guy to notice her. Chivalry thrives when girls need to be pursued—and this holds true after marriage as well.

Taharat HaMishpachah means that G‑d says that a woman is not always available. For almost two weeks out of the month, she’s off-limits to her husband for physical affection and intimacy, which builds up excitement for their reunion. But even being apart can be good for the relationship.

Around a year or so after we got married, my husband said, “Taharat HaMishpachah really forces a man to respect his wife.” I was taken aback. Did he not respect me when he married me? Why would our time of separation earn me respect? It’s not like I’d done anything admirable.

But then I got it. There’s a visceral respect that grows from distance. It’s not about what I can get from you, it’s about you.

When you own something, you can enjoy it at any time. When something isn’t yours, you enjoy it with permission, in this case permission from G‑d. Our relationship isn’t mine to milk for pleasure, it’s G‑d’s, and it needs to be treated with respect.

In a marriage, pulling back creates more momentum for moving forward. Don’t be scared to pull back.

4. Sensuality Can Be Sacred

Since my husband and I don’t touch each other in public, you might assume that we don’t have a romantic or passionate relationship. Perhaps romance and passion are not nearly as important to G‑d as are fidelity and raising a family.

Au contraire! The cycle of Taharat HaMishpachah keeps a couple’s intimate life on their radar at all times. When they’re apart, they’re preparing to be together, counting and checking. When they’re together, they know that it won’t last forever, so they savor that time. Since they can’t have any physical contact during menstruation and the subsequent week, the laws themselves make the couple obsessed with touch. If they can’t touch because touch is sensual, then touch becomes sensual. So much focus goes into the laws and restrictions of a couple’s intimate life that you’d think it was the most important part of their lives. And it is.

Intimacy is the most private part of a couple’s relationship, one of the only things that they share to the exclusion of everyone else. It’s the inner circle upon which all other concentric circles are balanced. It’s the heartbeat of the relationship, pulsing energy to other parts of their lives. The more private their passion, the more it can be sustained. If the Temple were the home, the Holy of Holies (used only on Yom Kippur by the high priest) would be the couple’s bedroom.7

When couples fight, they’re not interested in intimacy, which can turn into a vicious cycle: they feel distant, so they don’t want to be close, but when they’re not close, they feel more distant. The girl thinks, Maybe if he feels really alone, he’ll change. The guy thinks, I’m too lonely to crawl out of my cave and communicate.

When a couple’s intimate life is robust, it’s easier for the couple to feel compassion for each other. And when a couple feels close, the kids feel it—everyone can feel it. If G‑d values shalom bayit (peace in the home), it’s obvious that He values the couple’s intimate life as well.

5. There’s Power in Being Vulnerable

Just when the moon was swallowed by the black night and disappeared, it was reborn, a small sliver of light that, given 15 days, will become a luminous ball. Some things have to die to allow for rebirth. A seed disintegrates into the soil, and then a new plant emerges. When I’m forced to concede that I’m wrong, I become open to a new perspective. When my ego feels crushed, something fresh will always emerge.

What keeps a relationship fresh? Humility. It takes lots of humility to keep the discipline of Taharat HaMishpachah. I want a hug, but G‑d said, “Not now.” Taharat HaMishpachah is what G‑d wants of my marriage, whether I understand it or not. The culminating act of humility is immersion in the mikvah.

The Hebrew word for immersion is tovel. Switch around the letters of tovel and you get the word bittul, “self-nullification.” That’s why, when we prepare for the mikvah, we are careful to remove any obstruction between our body and the water, so that we’ll be thoroughly surrounded by the water, “disappearing” within it. When I’m under the water, holding my breath for an instant, I often meditate on my dependence on G‑d for life and for my marriage.

Apparently, G‑d feels that a marriage needs a monthly dose of fresh air and rejuvenation. It’s not only the separation that can make a relationship fresh, but the immersion in the mikvah itself. If the mikvah symbolizes bittul, the post-mikvah relationship is refreshed by that bittul.

It’s no coincidence that our menstrual cycle is usually 28–30 days long, coinciding with the cycle of the moon. Just like the moon waxes and wanes, the uterine lining sheds its blood and then replenishes again. And when life disappoints us most and we feel vulnerable, we shed our smug self and seek a more humble path. Sometimes being vulnerable is the first step to a new beginning, like the immersion in the mikvah that renews and replenishes the marriage.

Footnotes
1.
The time of niddah separation is a minimum of 12 days, and a couple can usually be together for around 18 days.
3.
The states of ritual purity and impurity are spiritual, and have nothing to do with physical cleanliness.
4.
After the flow of blood stops, a woman checks herself internally with a small white cloth for seven days.
5.
The Talmud says, “Man and woman, the Divine Presence is between them.” Some understand this to mean the that the Divine Presence is attracted to the space they leave between themselves during the time that intimacy is forbidden.
6.
Proverbs 31:27. The Hebrew word tzofiyah, “she watches,” implies a distant and bird’s-eye way of looking at something.
7.
II Kings 11:2. See Rashi ad loc.
Mrs Rochel Holzkenner is a mother of four children and the co-director of Chabad of Las Olas, Fla., serving the community of young professionals. She is a high-school teacher and a freelance writer—and a frequent contributor to Chabad.org. She lectures extensively on topics of Kabbalah and feminism, and their application to everyday life.
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Randi Freedman USA November 12, 2015

what we as Jews are I've commented already but couldn't help but add. Firstly when we teach our children through being a model we show respect for ourselves. It's our job as Jews to live as a model for others to mirror. They don't always but seeing is enough as long as we are holy and upright in our path of righteousness. Men must pray more...they were born with less blessings, for better or worse. When one visits the mikveh we are asserting our basic right to be. To exist, to sustain not just our life but the totality of our life and the lives of our dea rest ones. Reply

Bronya Shaffer brooklyn November 11, 2015

Indeed, life's not always a bowl of cherries. And not everything that's valuable and precious to us comes in simple little packages. In Jewish life, Shabbat, kashrut...all the chagim....tefila and tzedaka and gemilat chassadim...basic values that we cherish...none of it is meant to be 'simple' or easy. So, yes...there are often attendant difficulties that individuals and couples need to deal with in their own life; nonetheless it doesn't diminish the holiness of the mitzvah.

I fully agree with you - when couples are facing specific issues, painful issues, it's hard to experience what's meant to be inherently good. And, realize as well, that Torah is compassionate - it's always important to seek the guidance and rulings of a rav who's knowledgeable, compassionate and understanding of people's emotional life. When all is said and done, taharat hamishpacha is a mitzvah - its purpose is holiness. And not always is holiness synonymous with 'happiness'; not always is that which is holy easy to integrate into our life.

Ideally, the framework of this mitzvah serves to enhance the marital dynamics between husband and wife. Ideally, the regular ebb and flow of a couple's sexual intimacy serves to deepen their recognition of one another, their mutual respect and affection. Ideally, creating a perfect balance between being lovers and being loving friends, serves to nurture and nourish all the different dynamics of an evolving marriage. Ideally.

Sometimes, though, life's not ideal. And that's when couples deal with exactly what you describe - sometimes it's just a matter of emotional 'convenience' but sometimes it's much more than that. Irregular/long cycles..or infertility...or depression...or any number of situations that tax a couple's intimacy....in all of these situations it's certainly not as simple as tapping into the positive. When that's the case, certainly one should be open and speak with someone who's understanding of the situation.

I hope this is helpful; please let me know if there's anything further you'd like to discuss.

Bronya Shaffer
for Chabad.org Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona November 11, 2015

Thank You Thank you, Chaya, for your good wishes. We, too, hope for many more years together but we are realistic. I understand about the use of the mikvah for "one more time" if one is a regular user. However, I have never used nor felt the need of the mikvah. I doubt that my marriage could get any better. Barbara. Reply

chaya israel November 11, 2015

mikvah after menopause i would like to respond to the comment sent by barbara niles from arizona
you are truly blessed to have been married for 59 years! may G-d bless you with many more healthy years together. here, in my community, it is quite common for post-menopause women to use the mikvah, just once, thereby adding the element of purity, to an already good product.
wishing you all the best,
chaya, israel Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona November 10, 2015

Response to Janet Janet, you bring up several interesting points in your three responses. I'm not sure that you can set 50 as an arbitrary age for the newly married passion ("raging hormones") to be gone. Perhaps, it's just the urgency. As far as the two week separation and the use of the mikvah after menopause are concerned, hopefully, we'll get a reading from Chabad.org on this. Reply

Janet Kasten Friedman Kochav HaShachar, Israel November 9, 2015

To Raymond Bastarache about living within your means (about a husband's persepctive) Living within your means is a form of modesty, and yes, the laws of Family Purity are (among other things) designed to teach modesty. Good for you that you make the connection, and shared it with us! Having "shalom bayit" (peace in the home) is not a luxury, like a fancy car; it is a basic need and a mitzva, so the Laws of Family Purity doesn't accurately compare to buying a more expensive car as opposed to a cheaper one. But you are right that putting some time & thought between yourself and your purchases increases respect for both yourself and the merchandise. This respect is learned by "pulling back" from your spur-of-the-moment desires. It is interesting to see a male perspective, how a man can learn a moral lesson and apply it to other areas of his life. Reply

Janet Kasten Friedman Kochav HaShachar, Israel November 9, 2015

"Curative powers" of mikva? Randi Freedman asked if immersing in a mikva can cure difficult diseases. Anonymous, Philadelphia asked if miscarriages are a punishment for neglecting this mitzva, asking if "she did something wrong?" A Jewish family that does not keep the Laws of Family Purity is, indeed "doing something wrong"; but I wouldn't say that that's why she had miscarriages! Plenty of people who don't keep these laws have healthy babies; plenty of people who are faithful to these laws have miscarriages. Belief in Divine reward & punishment is a Jewish precept; but it is not a cold, mechanistic process. We humans are not allowed to say with pseudo-confidence: "sin x brings on punishment y..." we do NOT understand G-d's accountings! They span both this world and the next, and include many factors about which even the wisest of people are ignorant. Similarly, sometimes G-d heals a person by the merit of a certain mitzva, and this mitzva could be one of them. But it is not magic; don't treat it as such! Reply

Janet Kasten Friedman Kochav HaShachar, Israel November 9, 2015

Answering some questions posed by commenters Two people asked questions about menopause and mikva. (Rosemary Necedaw and Annette of Minnesota). Menopausal women go to the mikva after the last period and don't go any more. (of course we have no way of knowing this will be the last!) There is no time of withdrawal. Physical intimacy is, of course permitted. I haven't seen rabbinical sources on this subject, but my personal experience is that the two-week abstinance period which was so difficult-but-beneficial when we were newlyweds is no longer needed. Over the age of 50, our hormones are no longer raging. We have been married for decades and love each other far beyond sexual infatuation. Just as the body no longer "needs" menstruation, the post-menopausal Jewish woman's soul no longer "needs" to immerse in a mikva, nor for the couple to separate for a period. I wrote to the author of this article asking permission to answer questions but she has not yet responded. Neither she nor Chabad.org are responsible for what I have written. Reply

Rosemary Necedah Wi November 5, 2015

menopause I am also interested in a woman's cleansing and sexual life after menopause. Obviously women still make love with their husbands after their menstrual cycle stops. Is there a time of withdrawal then? Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona November 5, 2015

Thanks, Annette, for your question about menopause, cycles, and spirituality. Hopefully, Ms. Holzkenner will answer it for all of us. Discussions about the separation of the sexes and the mikvah always fascinate me. After 59 years of marriage, I have never practiced either and I find that the passion and intimacy now is just as robust as it was in the beginning. Touching is a huge part of our longevity along with love, friendship, and respect. Neither of us could go without it for a day, a week, or any other length of time. And, in spite of or make because of, our Jewishness remains intact. Reply

Randi Freedman USA November 5, 2015

Do you believe that if one is seriously ill...immersion in the Mikveh has curative powers when there is no medical hope? I ask because you describe it as sort of Chicken soup for the soul and all my life I've been a very spiritual person enmeshed in it as the sum total of my life. Reply

Annette Minnesota, USA November 4, 2015

Older women What happens when you go through menopause and no longer cycle? What is the spiritual lesson? Reply

Anonymous miami November 4, 2015

Amazing article. Never thought about point #2 but really amazed me and gives me a great chizuk to continue following the laws of family purity. And yea, its very hard at times Reply

Anonymous Philadelphia November 3, 2015

Miscarriage My Mom did not practice observance and lost several pregnancies before having me , a daughter not a son. It's interesting that this starts off with a miscarriage at ten weeks. Is this implying, she did something wrong? Reply

Raymond Bastarache NB. Canada. November 3, 2015

what things I learned.....being a husband Beautiful article. What I gleaned from this? of 2 weeks absence (to keep one away)? that if every person could wait 2 weeks before purchasing a non essential item.....and pray and say do I really need this luxury? Is it a need or a want?(today's advertisement, you cannot live without this or that?)there would be less bankruptcies, financial problems, stress related situations in marriages and abroad. I began practicing this when I wanted to purchase an automobile of high caliper I delayed ..not having the green light (so to speak)omitted from purchasing and so glad I did? NO#1 I did not need it as bad as I thought, No#2 having to finance it? put my family in jeopardy..far more important things were needed? No#3 freedom of being debt free?THE BORROWER IS A SERVANT TO THE LENDER. I am now living within my means, happier and fulfilled, happy home wife and daughter..learning patience which is a jewel. thank you! again, for the reminder of absence at least two weeks before a major decision. Reply

inge reisinger zwickau November 3, 2015

dear rochel, i really loved your good insight for this important matter thank you very much and health and joy for your family from shabbat candle to shabbat candle Reply

esther chanowitz November 2, 2015

rochel dearest,
this article is very well expressed, albeit its sensitive and personal nature.
Kol hakavod!
May your Life, be as Bright, as your candles, on Friday night!:)
amein..
love, Reply

Andrea Schonberger University Place, WA via chabadpiercecounty.com November 2, 2015

She brought it on herself You give the impression that if women/girls dress modestly they are safe from unwanted attention. Wrong! Sexual assaults can and do happen to women/girls regardless of how modest or provocative they dress. Put the blame where it lies: with the attacker. Plus, men only take women seriously if they make themselves heard, loud and clear, and not by wearing a modest suit from Talbots. Please stop dumping on women and making them responsible for men's bad behavior. We have enough problems already. Reply

Shelly Dembe Bexley November 2, 2015

Beautiful, honest, intimate. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful insights, Rochel! I plan to share this:) Reply

netty zender-mejahez jerusalem November 2, 2015

Taharat Hamishpacha not as rosy as described in article Sorry to rain on your parade, but the reasons you gave for keeping "taharat hamishpacha" mentions all the potentially positive effects while conveniently ignoring the negative ones.
I think the main problem with the article is that the author won't admit that there are many times difficult challenges for couples keeping taharat hamishpacha
What about women who have long periods and short cycles, i.e the time they can spend together with their husbands is limited to 10-12 days per month.
What about halachic infertility?
What about post-partum bleeding that can go on for months?
Do you think not being able to pass your new-born baby to your husband is good for one's marriage. Reply

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