Breath, Bath & Beyond…

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 Although I had listened to tales of mikveh experiences from my mother and others, the idea of ritual immersion meant little to me until my first visit to Israel with my husband in 1974. On our tour of the 1st century CE fortress of Masada, we explored the once-luxurious remains of King Herod’s palace which included a mikveh, or ritual bath. Peering into its now dry depths, I imagined being in the footsteps of my ancient ancestors and hearing echoes of their struggles for spiritual cleansing, closeness with G-d and a measure of sanity in those stress-laden times. This grand complex was later taken over as the desert outpost by a community of Jewish zealots in their rebellion against the Roman rule of Jerusalem. Here is how the mikveh appears today:Image

The Masada tour motivated my curiosity to learn more about how the ritual was carried out and why. It also inspired an an aquatint etching called ‘Mikveh’ that was one of four images in my 1975 ‘The Rituals Of Atonement’ series:Image

But the opportunity for in-depth research into this subject did not assert itself until 2013 when I began An Illumination Of Blessings, this Kickstarter project. Even though my personal background to date did not include the religious or social impetus to actually visit a mikveh, I learned that the ritual of immersion (tevillah) is one of three essential (mitzvot) commandments reserved for women* and decided to include it in this collection.

In brief, the mikveh, which literally means a collection of water in Hebrew, is more than a pool of water. According to Tractate Mikva’ot in the Mishnah (the 2nd century CE codification of the Oral Torah), it must be a bath designed with specific dimensions and capacity to hold water that is stationary but which originates from a flowing natural source (a lake, ocean or rainwater) to permit ritual and spiritual purification. At the links below, there are a number of articles detailing the history of the mikveh and the legal (halakhic) requirements for its use.

Today, despite the long and often painful history of Judaism, immersion in a mikveh remains a viable practice among observant Jewish men and women. Many modern mikvaot, while adhering to those classic dimensions, also exhibit an awareness of the necessity for religious and spiritual continuity. These have been designed to resemble stylish, well-appointed spas such as the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh in Newton, MA.

The setting of my illustration, an early 20th century mikveh in Israel whose water can be seen flowing into it from the passageway beneath the stairs, was inspired by a beautifully made 1997 film called “Women” directed by Michal Bat Adam and Moshe Mizrahi. Here I have shown a young woman with two attendants who are required to observe her immersion and ensure that it is done properly. Three stars, seen through the tiny window in the background signal the onset of the Sabbath, a traditional time for this ritual. Usually a sign displaying the immersion blessings is posted near the pool but with a bit of artistic license, I incorporated the words into the water itself suggesting that like water, our history has been mercurial, yet the consequences and benefits of using it mindfully are eternal.

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*in addition to lighting the Sabbath candles and separating the challah. Today “challah” refers to the bread eaten on Shabbat and holidays. Originally “challah” referred to the small piece of dough that was set aside for the kohen (priest) when making bread (Numbers 15:20). Today Jewish women bless, separate and burn a small piece of dough when making bread in remembrance of the portion given to God (through the Temple priests) in ancient times. This ritual reminds us that sustenance ultimately comes from God and transforms baking bread into a spiritual act. 

Links: 

http://judaism.about.com/cs/women/ht/challah_sep.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/mikveh.html

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