Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Visit to Mayyim Hayyim

Last November, previous Strawbery Banke archaeologist Sheila Charles invited me to join her and her sisterhood group from Temple Beth Abraham for a field trip to Mayyim Hayyim, a modern community mikveh in Newton, MA. Lisa Berman, Mayyim Hayyim's Director of Education, gave us an excellent lesson on mikveh specifications and traditions in the Paula Brody & Family Education Center, and then gave us a tour of the facilities.

Mayyim Hayyim's founding board, assembled by author Anita Diamant in 2001, took on the dual responsibility of educating the American Jewish community about the ritual of mikveh immersion, and of raising funds to build the institution.  Mayyim Hayyim opened in 2004 and now provides over 1400 mikveh immersions a year, along with 110 educational programs a year.  It is a beautiful, welcoming, modern space, within a renovated Victorian house.

Lisa spoke to our group of visitors about a variety of topics, exploring the traditional background of mikveh immersion.  Mikvot are associated with the concept of ritual purity and the healing power of water.  At Mayyim Hayyim, there are two mikvot and four preparation areas, where people are able to clean and prepare themselves for ritual immersion.  The immersion pits are each four feet square.  This allows for enough space that during immersion, an adult person is able to fully immerse her body without touching the sides or floor, and allows for the mikveh to hold at least 250 gallons.  Participants descend seven steps into the mikveh.

Honoring the Jewish law that says a mikveh water source must be natural (e.g. a spring, ocean, lake, rainwater, etc.), these modern mikvot are filled with warm tap water, and then "kissed" (hashakah) by rainwater that is collected outside in reservoirs on either side of the building.  The reservoir (bor) in the photo to the left sits just outside one of the mikveh rooms.  The rainwater is added via the red spigot visible in the photo above.  The creation of "living water" (mayyim hayyim) within the mikvot requires that at least enough rainwater to fill an olive (ke’zayit) is added to the tap water.

Visiting Mayyim Hayyim was a wonderful educational experience and certainly helped Sheila and me understand the ritual background of mikveh immersion along with the practical specifications of a modern mikveh.  It will be interesting to see how the early 20th century mikveh at Puddle Dock compares to the early 21st century mikvot at Mayyim Hayyim!

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