In Judaism water is a symbol of life. It is no wonder that Sages tell us that our first act when starting a Jewish community is to build a mikvah; even before synagogues, cemeteries, and kosher butchers Jews must have living waters (mayim chayim) to function as a Jewish community.
Since biblical times both women and men have used mikvah to cleanse themselves from ritual impurities in order to stand before G-d. Ancient mikvahs dating from before the late first century can be found throughout the land of Israel as well as in historic communities of the Jewish diaspora. One of the most beautiful aspects of the mikvah is how it connects Jews today to those of millennia gone by.
By Jewish law mikvah waters must have their source in nature: a spring or well, a river or lake, or rainfall. The natural water source gives the mikvah’s waters the status of “living water.” Various regulations and different traditions delineate the size, configuration and nature of the pool – as well as the volume of water required. Most contemporary mikvahs are indoor constructions involving collected rainwater.
Throughout time both men and women have used mikvah to regain ritual purity according to regulations in the Torah and in classical rabbinical literature. Today Jews still seek out mikvah in order to achieve ritual purity; as a vital part of the conversion process; before Yom Kippur and other Jewish holidays; and to cleanse utensils used for food. Use by women after menstruation or childbirth has remained an important mikvah function.
Community mikvahs – those shared by all Jews in a community – have become more popular in recent years. This is due to the high cost of building and maintaining mikvahs (most communities that have engaged in this endeavor have benefited from the generosity of a large single donor to kick off a general fundraising campaign), and to the desire to strive toward a united and unified Jewish community.