Written by Rabbi Haviva Ner-David
At the newly-revived religiously and socially progressive Kibbutz Hannaton in Lower Galilee, a tradition has evolved to hold a women’s circle at our mikveh for each woman a few weeks before she is due to give birth. Thankfully, we have located on our kibbutz a unique mikveh in the Israeli scene: Shmaya: A Spiritual and Educational Mikveh in Galilee, where anyone can come to immerse for whatever purpose—with or without guidance, in private or with accompaniment .
That is how an old tradition of women immersing in the mikveh before giving birth was transformed at Hannaton into a ritual gathering that speaks to the modern, progressive women of our small kibbutz.
For example, our last gathering was for Viki, two weeks before she was due to give birth in January. As women arrived with food and cheer, they settled in to help create a plaster cast of Viki’s pregnant belly (which she will paint and add to the growing display in the mikveh of plaster pregnant belly casts created by Hannaton women over the past year), fashion wicker circle chains to hang in the mikveh doorway (a symbol of both the circle of life and the golden chain of tradition), eat and socialize.
When the cast was complete and ready to set aside to dry, Viki showered and went into the mikveh room with a close friend to perform her pre-birth mikveh ritual. Fortunately, a wonderful book was recently published in Hebrew, Parashat Hamayim , a collection of water rituals edited by four Israeli Reform women rabbis (and published recently by Kibbutz Hameuchad). In this book is a beautiful translation of a moving ceremony written by Shanna Schulman for Mayyim Hayyim in English for women in their ninth month of pregnancy.
This is the ritual ceremony Viki chose, and she came out of the mikveh room glowing as we welcomed her with a song from the Aveenu Malcheinu prayer from the High Holidays: “Tehe hashaah hazot shaat rachamim v’et ratzon milfaneichah (May this hour be an hour of mercy and a time of will before You).”
There is a traditional belief that at liminal times in our lives (a bride and groom at their wedding ceremony, a woman giving birth, a person who is dying, etc.) we are most ripe and empowered to offer blessings to others. In this tradition, Viki then offered a group blessing to all of the women present.
Next, I, who run Shmaya and had offered to organize this event, lead a short study session about the tradition of pre-birth immersion.
The first hint we get in the Bible of the mikveh ritual is in the Creation Story, where we are told that the world began as an abyss with the spirit of God hovering above the waters. Then God started to separate—between dark and light, sky and earth, land and sea. A dualistic world was “born” out of water, just as every human being is born out of water into a world of dualism, of everything and its opposite. It is the human condition to strive to return to that place of completeness where we floated before we were born, to return to our mother’s womb where we felt whole and connected to our most essential spiritual selves. In essence, to God, who is “One.” God is not dual. God is that wholeness that we all search for in our “spiritual quest” on this earth.
Mikveh is a ritual of transition and rebirth. We enter the mikveh–which feels very much like how we may imagine it felt to be in the womb—curl into a fetal position, immerse ourselves completely in the “living waters”, and come out renewed, refreshed, revitalized–reborn.
With each transition we are in essence reborn, which is why mikveh has developed into a transition ritual for all types of life transitions—conversion, bar and bat mitzvah, first menstruation, menopause, divorce, marriage, cancer treatments, transitioning out of bereavement, being drafted to the army, retirement, graduation, at the beginning of the New Year. But there is also an old tradition for women to immerse before giving birth. And it is interesting to think why. After all, it is not as if traditionally women had no other opportunities to immerse. They would immerse every month after their periods. And although a pregnant woman would not have immersed for nine months, she knew she would be immersing again after the birth. So why this tradition?
It is my feeling that women immersed before giving birth for a few reasons. First, mikveh immersion before major spiritual events–like weddings, the High Holidays, scribing God’s name in a Torah scroll–mirrors the washing the Nation of Israel did before receiving the Ten Commandments and the washing the High Priests did before performing their Temple service. Giving birth is, like Revelation, receiving a holy gift. Giving birth is also a holy service; it is bringing one of God’s souls into the world.
Second, giving birth is a birth of the fetus into the world, exactly the event mikveh immersion simulates; and so, mikveh immersion is an appropriate ritual to mark this event. However, it is not the mother who is being born; yet she is the one who immerses. Nevertheless, each birth is also a rebirth of the parents. With each life transition, we grow and are born again and again into the person we are meant to become. Transitions are like small and continuous births of our ever-evolving soul along the way of our life’s journey.
But even more deeply, perhaps women immersed before giving birth because they were preparing to reconnect in the most powerful way a human being can connect to that wholeness he or she loses when being born into the world. When a woman gives birth, she mirrors God. God created the world from water, and we birth souls into the world from the fluid of our wombs. And so, when a woman gives birth, she is the most God-like a human being can ever hope to be.
I am not saying this to disparage men who cannot give birth, or women who are not able to give birth. I myself have never had a vaginal delivery, and one of my seven children is adopted. There is no doubt in my mind that I am just as worthy of a parent to my children who were born by c-section and my child who was born out of another woman’s womb. There are certainly other ways in which we mirror God in our journeys on this Earth. Even ways that are also about creating—art, music, literature, love. But in terms of mirroring God the Creator, giving birth to a human soul is the closest we can get to Godliness. And so, it makes sense to me that women would turn to mikveh as a way to spiritually prepare to enter into that powerful yet humbling role.
After our study, we passed around a string on which we beaded earth-toned wooden beads for Viki. As each woman blessed Viki with her unique and personal wishes for her birth and her parenting journey, she added another bead to the string—until together we created a lovely string of beads for Viki to hang near her bed to remind her of her many blessings and her supportive community of women—especially during the birth, which she was planning to have at home.
Finally, to end the evening, we passed around a red string as we sang apropos to Viki’s upcoming birth: “Pitchu Li Shaarei Tzedek. Avoh Vam Odeh Ya. Ze Hashaar Ladonai Tzadikim Yavou Vo, Open for me the gates of righteousness. I will pass through them and thank God. This is the gateway to the Divine; the righteous will pass through it.”
Once we were all connected by one long red string, we passed around a pair of scissors, and each woman cut herself a red bindel, a red string (considered a good luck charm by Jewish women for countless generations) to wear around her wrist to remind her to keep Viki in mind until the birth and send her blessings and wishes for a meaningful and safe birth.
As we dispersed–each woman to her own home, family, and life—although we were channeling our love and support especially towards Viki, I know we all felt the embrace of this community of women. And two weeks later, Viki delivered her son in a safe home birth. He was named Lavi at his brit milah ceremony eight days after that. I was with a friend from the kibbutz when we heard the wonderful news.
“We never stop being moved by this birth thing, do we?” my friend said as she cut the red string around my wrist.
“I agree,” I said. “But not just because of the baby who is born, but also because of the birth process itself.” Which is why it should be marked and celebrated with a proper ritual. And I can think of no more appropriate way to do that than with a women’s circle at the mikveh.
Rabbi Haviva Ner David is a teacher, writer, and activist. She is the founding director of Reut: The Center for Modern Jewish Marriage, has a doctorate from Bar Ilan University in the Philosophy of Halakhah, and received private ordination from Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky, an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem. She is the author of the book Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination (2000 JFL Books) and is currently completing a second memoir also dealing with feminism and Judaism. Rabbi Dr. Ner-David is the founder and director of Shmaya: A Spiritual and Educational Mikveh in Galilee.