A MIKWÈH IN UGANDA

The KKSY Jewish Community in Uganda Needs a Mikwèh!
What is a mikwèh and why is it so important for a Jewish community such as KKSY (Kahal Kadosh She’erit Yisrael)? 

The Background:
A mikwèh is a collection or a gathering of water which fulfills an essential role in the religious life of the Jewish people.

According to Torah law (also called the “Law of Moses”) a person can become ritually ‘impure’. This ‘impurity’ does not necessarily result from a sin and is often not perceived as negative in itself. The most important consequence of such impurity, however, is that being impure would (temporarily) disqualify someone from visiting the Temple in Jerusalem. It is generally assumed that one of the main functions of such a concept was to instill a higher level of awe and respect in the person that entered the Temple and participated in its service.

There were several various levels of ritual impurity, depending on what had brought about the impurity. Related to these different levels, there were distinct rituals for removing the impurity. In some cases, for minor levels, the impurity would cease automatically at the end of the day. For others, only the washing of the person’s hands was required. In the most severe case, after touching a corpse, a highly complicated ritual was involved that lasted a week, for the impurity to be removed. In many cases however, the appropriate procedure was for a person to totally immerse him/herself in water.

Some Laws of Ritual Purity are Perpetuated After the Destruction of the Temple:
After the destruction of the Temple, maintaining these practices had become less relevant. Therefore, in most cases, the rabbis of the Talmud decided to temporarily abolish them, until the time when, one day in the future, the Temple would be rebuilt. However a number of exceptions were made for cases in which the practice would continue. The ritual washing of hands in certain occasions, such as before eating bread is such an example in which purity laws were perpetuated. Other examples directly involve the topic of our article, the mikwèh.
These examples include: Firstly, the immersion of someone’s entire body at the occasion of his/her conversion to Judaism (which, as a side note, also explains the origin of Christian baptism).
Secondly, the practice to immerse newly acquired metal and glass food utensils in such a body of water.

And thirdly, the requirement for a menstruant woman to immerse herself after a period of separation from her husband, before she can resume intimate relations. Similarly, such an immersion is required at the end of a period following giving birth.

Requirements for a Mikwèh:
Water, like people and many objects can become ritually impure. Under Torah law, however, there are two distinct conditions that can make a body of water immune from becoming impure. In other words, under two possible circumstances will water always be pure. According to rabbinic law, exactly such water is needed if one would immerse oneself for the purpose of purification. Only such water that is inherently pure can be used for this specific ritual.
The first scenario involves rainwater that has naturally gathered into a basin. Such rainwater cannot have been artificially transported to the mikwèh. Also, the flow of the water into the basin must happen without any interruption, and there are several rather complicating additional conditions. One of them is that the rainwater cannot flow through any metal pipes or through certain vessels. Also, once the rain water is gathered into the basin, it has to be still, i.e. it has to stop flowing. This naturally limits certain bodies of water to be used as a mikwèh. For instance, a flowing river that is primarily fed by rain water is unfit for ritual immersion.
The second scenario involves water that flows uninterruptedly from an active spring. This involves a different set of prerequisites, which are generally less complicated. Most significantly, the water can be used even if it keeps flowing from the spring well.

A mikwèh in Uganda:
It is this second type of mikwèh that we want to build for the KKSY community in Uganda. A spring is already purchased nearby their synagogue. Below is shown how the water will flow from the spring into the mikwèh basin and back out again (images below show an already built mikwèh in another district of Uganda).

In the second illustration, one can see the actual water spring and the channel leading to the mikwèh.
(Photography: Menachem Kuchar)

The actual mikwèh is made slightly removed from the spring itself, to create safer conditions for immersion as well as an environment of privacy by means of walled enclosure (as the immersion is typically performed without clothing). 

The third illustration shows the actual mikwèh:

(Photography: Menachem Kuchar)

Making use of spring-fed, flowing water offers the significant advantage that it doesn’t offer a breeding ground for mosquitoes.  The alternative option for building a mikwèh with collected still-standing rain water could instead create a dangerous source of malaria.
In addition, if the mikwèh is built in the above depicted fashion, the water flowing out can be used to irrigate the crops on the land that feed the people!


The Minimal Amount of Water in a Mikwèh:
One thing we know is that there should be enough water to cover the entire body of an average person.   According to some authorities, as long as a person’s whole body can be covered with water, the mikwèh is sufficient for him/her.  The majority of the rabbis of the Talmud however held that the quantity of water has to be at least 40 se’ah.  The question then immediately comes up: How much is a se’ah?  Typically for most things Jewish, that is a matter of debate.  It doesn’t really help to know that a se’ah is supposed to be the same size as 144 eggs…  How big the average eggs in the time of the Talmud were, is another point of discussion.  In short, the opinions on the minimal quantity of water in a “ritual bath” differ from 293.2 liter (77.5 gallons) to a stricter opinion that quotes a minimal amount of 572 liter (151 gallons).  Nowadays, as there is no maximum quantity of water, all mikwa’ot, (including our Ugandan mikwèh), are built larger than the biggest quoted minimum. 
The above-mentioned immersion of new cooking utensils has a smaller minimum of water but can be done in a bigger mikwèh as well.


Other Types of Mikwèh:
Many of the world’s natural bodies of water, such as seas, oceans, spring-fed lakes, and spring-fed rivers  are mikwa’ot as well and can be used for purification purposes.  Members of Ugandan communities that have no access to a mikwèh generally utilized a nearby river, which offered several hazards, such as the presence of parasites, water snakes and other creatures that live in the rivers. 


When the Mikwèh is Used:
According to Jewish practice, immersing oneself in a mikwèh is required on several occasions.  The first three occasions fall under a category of laws which are called Ṭaharat haMishpaa (Family Purity).

1. Most importantly, a Jewish woman is required to immerse after a number of days following her menstruation.  During this period, she and her husband are not allowed to be together in an intimate way, until she immerses in the mikwèh or, as we saw before, in another valid body of water.  Initially, according to Torah law and in most cases, this period of semi-separation lasted 7 days in total, starting from the unset of her monthly period.  As a result of a development that started in Talmudic times in Babylonia, the custom evolved into a counting of seven days starting from the end of the woman’s menstruation (often resulting in a total of about 12 days on average).  This approach has become the general practice of virtually all observant Jewish communities.

2. As the practice of monthly immersion is only observed in the context of marital life, an unmarried woman does not visit the mikwèh.  Therefore, her first visit to the mikwèh is typically on the night before her wedding.

3. The above described practice is also observed after a woman gives birth. 

4. All Jewish converts, both men and women, immerse in a mikwèh after they have been accepted by a Jewish court (a Beth Din).  This immersion constitutes their entering into the Jewish people.

5. In all these occasions, the ritual of immersing oneself in a mikwèh, is more than just a ritualistic or legalistic practice.  Therefore, apart from the above described cases, there are other occasions for using a mikwèh, which are voluntary and done for purely spiritual purposes. 
As an example, some grooms visit the mikwèh on the day before their wedding. 
In addition, many Jewish men (and some women) visit a mikwèh on the day before Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).  Others practice this custom even before other Jewish holidays, some every week before the start of Shabbat and few individuals go early every day before morning prayers. 

As was alluded to before, there is a strong spiritual component to this practice.  For one thing, a mikwèh can be seen as representing the waters of creation, or/and a mother’s womb, while immersing and coming out of a mikwèh symbolizes rebirth and spiritual renewal, or even resurrection.
Therefore, it is not surprising to find that a rather new application of the mikwèh has emerged in our days, namely as a tool within certain post-trauma therapies.


Spirituality:
Water is the primary source of all living things.  It has the power to restore and replenish life.  In Judaism, Torah is often compared to water with its ability to replenish and its life-sustaining qualities.  

While the synagogue elevates the community, the mikwèh elevates the family.  Although sometimes used by men, for immersing eating and drinking utensils, and for conversions, a mikwèh is mainly a woman’s domain.  A woman, potential giver of life, has the power to use the mikwèh to elevate her home and family from the physically mundane to the spiritually sublime.  Through the mikwèh, the physical is elevated to the higher realm of the spiritual.  By inviting the Holy One into the most intimate areas of life, this observance can bring holiness and blessings into the family and into the soul of any child conceived.  Immersion in the mikwèh is a Biblical commandment of the highest ordinance with profound spiritual ramifications.


History:
Jews have been building mikwa’ot  for thousands of years.  In fact, the mikwèh is such an integral and essential part of Jewish practice that a Jewish community is required to make the building of a mikwèh its highest priority.  A community is required to build a mikwèh, even before investing in a synagogue! 

Below are pictures of mikwa’ot from (a) Antiquity, from (b) the Middle Ages, and from (c) Modern Times. 

The Jews of Uganda Need Your Help:

The  building of a mikwèh can only be realized through generous contributions of donors like you and me.
Please consider contributing to this lofty cause through: http://kksy.org/donate
Alternatively, you can send a check to:

P.V.A.O.
Attn: Rabbi Sjimon den Hollander
21 East 22nd Street 12G
New York, NY 10010 

(All donations are tax deductible)