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Monday, May 2, 2011

How to Be a Mikveh Attendant:

What is the precise halachic role of a mikveh attendant? I have been asked this a number of times, and here I  share some general thoughts.

Truth be told, it is very limited, there is but one obligation. In the words of the Shuchan Aruch:

"When a woman immerses, there needs to stand next to her an adult Jewess, who is at least 12 years and 1 day old, who can observe if any hair of her head is floating above the water..." (Yoreh De'ah 198.40)
In other words, a mikveh attendant's role is to make sure that the woman's hair is completely submerged in the water.  Everything else, from checking for dirt under the nails to sifting through loose hairs and the like, are extraneous customs grounded in any number of the following: local tradition, piety, ignorance, or a desire to keep the mikvah clean. In the view if the Shulchan Aruch, a woman is trusted to check her own body without assistance and she is trusted to immerse the entire body completely, with the sole, exceptional, concern of the hair. In fact, were it the case that a mikvah attendant could not be found (and one's husband is not available), the Shulchan Aruch goes on to state as follows:

"If there is no one to stand next to her, or in the (darkness) of night [whereby it is difficult to see floating hair], she should wrap her head using hair-thread that does not impede, or wool thread, or (use) a strap upon her head, so long as it be loose or the coils of thread are mesh-like. Alternatively, she may put a loose cloth over her head." (YD 198.40)

The latter is echoed by the Aruch HaShulchan and Rav Obadiah Yosef. (A.H. YD 198.87; Taharat HaBayith Vol III:45 #172) Similarly, Rav Yitzchak Abadi recommends that a hairnet be used when no attendant can be found. (Or Yitzchak Vol. I #29 Page 304)

Not to put to fine a point on it, the Maharshak rules 'that if a woman is fastidious and does not fear the water, she can grasp her hair with her hand (to keep it down), immerse to a good depth, and then let go of her hair underneath the water.'  (Tifereth Shmuel -Commentary on Rosh's Hilchot Mikvaoth #28) The latter is cited approvingly by the Aruch Hashulchan among other authorities. (A.H. YD 198.87; Pischei Teshuva YD 198.43; Taharat HaBayith ibid; Otzer Meforshim YD 198:40-- in Shulchan Aruch HaBahir)

Although it is not recommended by this author or anyone else to do this without proper consultation, nevertheless, by appeal to unusual circumstance, the general point is made abundantly clear. The halachic obligation of a mikveh attendant, though quite important, it is rather limited in scope. In light of this, perhaps it is time to reframe the emphasis of the conversation. The question is not 'what are the halachic obligations of the mikvah attendant?' rather the question ought to be 'what are her human obligations?'

A few suggestions:
To be respectful and warm, to offer help when it is asked for, to shy away from criticism of any kind, not to touch unless prompted, to keep the confidences of others, to embody the Ahavat Yisrael esteemed by our matriarchs of old....

7 comments:

  1. Rabbi Hausman - yes, yes, and yes.

    What you've written is right on target, and should be required reading everywhere. This is just how we train our volunteer Mikveh Guides at Mayyim Hayyim - the sensitivity and support you describe (along with knowing what is NOT required of a witness) is always appreciated by our visitors.

    One suggestion I'd add to your list:

    To hold a sheet / towel above the eyes the whole time a person is in the water, only lowering it down at the moment of immersion.

    Thank you for this post.

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  2. Thank you for the encouragement and interesting suggestion! I wouldn't mind seeing the guide if it is available online. (rabbihausman at gmail)

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  3. Here's a link to the teacher's manual:
    http://www.mayyimhayyim.org/Store/Guide-My-Steps-Teachers-Guide

    Participant guide and Readings Module are also available online, for this 7-session training curriculum.

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  4. How to phrase my response. This is beautifully posted. And it is in the brevity of the ritual that the rich possibilities for meaning may lie. That is, elaborations on rituals may deprive us sometimes...and in this case, the very limited nature of the ritual role opens it up to the meaning it can have for the relationship at that moment and for the ritual's power. In this case *not* to do is to create more than all our "to-do's" create at other times. (And I write this as one who as acted as a guide for women at mikvah.)

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  5. Do you have any sources for when and where the role of the mikvah attendant was instituted? I heard that originally people immersed without a witness but that after a number of suicides in the mikvah, during the 12th-15th centuries in Worms and Speyer, (a time of pogroms, oppression and forced conversions) a decision was made to prevent any further drownings by making sure there was, in effect, a life guard. Has anyone else heard of this or can anyone suggest where to find a source for it?

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  6. I've had my share of insensitive, even rude, mikvah attendants. One hesitates to complain, feeling that maybe such talk is Loshon Hara, maybe the attendant is a poor widow who needs the job and it is Ossur (forbidden) to bring further anguish to a widow, maybe the attendant will find out about the complaint and retaliate with some choice comments of her own and then it
    becomes a full-out war. You figure that in the bigger scheme of things it works out to be only one hour a year of putting up with such rudeness, and besides maybe it's as they say a Kapparah for one's aveiros instead of Gd forbid worse punishment like a health problem or financial loss.

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  7. Naomi,
    As far as I know, the earliest mention of the custom is found in the Laws of Mikvaoth (#28) by Rabbi Ashur Ben Yechiel (“Rosh”). The Rosh was born in Germany around 1250 and died in 1328, in Spain. The rationale given by him is the same one mentioned in my post—that no hair floats above the water.
    Around the same time, more or less, the KolBo (thought to be R. Aharon ben Jacob of Narbonne, France 13th-14th cent.), writes that custom was written/recorded by R Meir of Rothenberg himself. (KolBo #68) Rabbi Meir (1215-1293) was the Rosh’s teacher. He states that the attendant is there to see that the “immersion is in accordance with the law.” כתב הר"מ נ"ע אשה שטובלת צריכה להוליך עמה אשה יהודית או בעלה או נערה שהיא גדולה יותר מי"ב שנים ויום אחד לראות אם טבלה כדין
    Later, the Agur (R. Yaakov ben Yehuda Landa-Germany-15th c.) also cites the custom in the name of R. Meir, but doesn’t give a reason. כתב מהר"ם כשטובלת האשה צריכה חברתה שתראה טבילתה Perhaps by that time everyone knew, and it is just assumed. In any event, I do not see anything about suicides in the above sources or in the Spanish authorities. (Rashba, Raaved, Tashbetz) If you find out more, let me know.

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