- Rabbi Josh Flug
Immersion in a Mikveh Prior to the High Holidays
Immersion in a Mikveh Prior to the High Holidays
There are many people who have the custom to immerse in a mikveh before Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur. In this issue, we will explore the various reasons presented for this custom and the practical differences between these reasons.
The Requirement to Purify Oneself Prior to a Festival
The Gemara, Rosh HaShanah 16b, states that there is an obligation to purify oneself prior to a festival. Rambam (1138-1204), Hilchot Tumat Ochlin 16:10, codifies this statement and explains that the purpose of this obligation is so that one can enter the Beit HaMikdash and eat Kodshim (sacrificial meats). According to Rambam, the custom of immersion prior to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is ostensibly not based on the obligation to purify oneself prior to a festival. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur there are no sacrifices that one must eat. Furthermore, nowadays, we do not offer sacrifices and even if we had the ability, immersion is not a sufficient form of purity for one who was come in contact with a corpse.
R. Yechezkel Landa (1713-1793), Tzelach, Beitzah to Rashi 18a, s.v. D'Lo, suggests that other Rishonim disagree. R. Eliezer ben R. Yoel HaLevi, (c. 1140-1220), Sefer Ra'aviah no. 529, writes that the obligation to purify oneself before a festival applies on Rosh HaShanah. R. Landa notes that Ra'aviah must be of the opinion that the obligation to purify oneself prior to a festival is not a function of being able to eat the sacrifices. Rather, there is an independent obligation of purity before all festivals, including Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. This obligation would also apply nowadays.
Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), Yoma 8:24, seems to present a middle position. Rabbeinu Asher states that one cannot apply the obligation to purify oneself before a festival to the custom of immersion before Yom Kippur because the obligation to purify oneself is only fulfilled if one becomes fully purified in the process. Nowadays, we are all ritually impure because we have come in contact with a corpse and immersion is insufficient to remove that type of impurity. Rabbeinu Asher implies that theoretically, the obligation to purify oneself before a festival applies on Yom Kippur (and ostensibly on Rosh HaShanah). However, practically, we have no means of fulfilling this obligation nowadays.
R. Aryeh Leib Ginsburg (1695-1785), Sha'agat Aryeh no. 67, prefers Rambam's position and therefore questions Rabbeinu Asher's logic. First, there should be no obligation to purify oneself for Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur when there is no obligation to eat korbanot. Second, even if one were to find the ashes of a parah adumah, there is still no obligation to purify oneself before a festival if there is no possibility of offering a sacrifice.
R. Yosef S. Nathanson (1808-1875), Sho'el U'Meishiv Vol. III 1:123, writes that the practice of purifying oneself prior to the festivals should be continued as part of our obligation to observe practices that were in place at the time of the Beit HaMikdash (zecher laMikdash). He does not directly address whether this requirement would apply prior to Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur.
Removal of Tumat Keri
If one experiences any release of seminal fluid, he acquires tumat keri and is called a ba'al keri. Tumat keri has ramifications outside of the Beit HaMikdash. The Mishna, Berachot 20b, notes that a ba'al keri may not learn Torah or recite berachot until he enters a mikveh. The Gemara, Berachot 22b, states that this institution dates back to Ezra HaSofer. Nevertheless, The Gemara, Berachot 22a, records that many people adopted the ruling of R. Yehuda ben Beteirah that the original institution was repealed. While there is considerable debate regarding the extent of R. Yehuda ben Beteirah's ruling (see Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim no. 88), Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 88:1, adopts the position that the original institution was totally repealed and no purification is required in order for a ba'al keri to learn Torah or recite berachot.
Kol Bo (anonymous author, 14th-15th century) no. 64, writes that the repeal of the original institution was based on the difficulty of observing it. Therefore, we observe the institution prior on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur because their prayers require a higher level of sanctity.
Immersion as an Act of Repentance
Maharil (c. 1365-1427), Hilchot Erev Yom Kippur, presents a third reason for immersion prior to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Maharil suggests that it is considered part of the repentance process. He compares it to the immersion of a convert who immerses (as part of the conversion process) in order to signify that there is now a change in his life.
Maharil notes a number of practical differences between his approach and the approach that immersion is to remove tumat keri. First, if the immersion is to remove tumat keri, one can immerse whenever one pleases. However, if it is for the purpose of repentance, one should immerse as close to Yom Kippur as possible. [Maharil only discusses immersion prior to Yom Kippur. Perhaps he does not require immersion prior to Rosh HaShanah because repentance is not a main theme of Rosh HaShanah.] Second, Maharil notes that if the purpose of the immersion is to merely remove tumat keri, it would only apply to those who are actually impure. Those who are not impure would not require immersion. However, if the purpose is for repentance, everyone, including women and young children, should immerse. [See Sha'agat Aryeh no. 66, regarding a woman's obligation to purify herself prior to a festival.]
R. Moshe Isserles (1520-1572), Darkei Moshe, Orach Chaim 606:3, presents two additional differences between the reasons for immersion. First, he notes that Maharil states that one should immerse three times and recite vidui. R. Isserles notes that this is only applicable if the reason for immersion is for repentance. If the purpose of immersion is for purity, a single immersion is sufficient and there is no reason to recite vidui. Second, Kol Bo, op. cit., notes that Maharam MiRutenberg (1215-1293) did not immerse in the mikveh before Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Rather, he poured nine kav (approximately 12-20 liters) of water on himself. R. Isserles notes that use of nine kav is a remedy that is only mentioned in the context of allowing a ba'al keri to learn Torah and recite berachot (see Berachot 22a). It is not a standard purification process. Therefore, Maharam was certainly of the opinion that immersion before Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is a function of tumat keri.
As a matter of practical halacha, R. Issereles, in his glosses to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 606:4, writes that reason for immersion is to remove tumat keri. Therefore, one is only required to immerse one time and one may rely on the use of nine kav. R. Avraham Gombiner (c.1633-1683) Magen Avraham 606:8, records that there are those who are of the opinion that the immersion is for the purpose of repentance and therefore require three immersions. R. Chaim C. Medini (1833-1904), S'dei Chemed, Ma'arechet Yom HaKippurim 1:6, rules that single women should not immerse prior to Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur. R. Moshe Meth (c.1551-1606), Mateh Moshe no. 841, rules that in general, immerse prior to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is not applicable to women.
Recitation of a Beracha on the Immersion
Rabbeinu Asher, op. cit., cites the opinion of R. Sa'adiah Gaon (882-942) that one should recite a beracha after immersing in the mikveh. Rabbeinu Asher disagrees and maintains that the purpose of the immersion is only to be more stringent regarding tumat keri prior to Yom Kippur. Since there is no fulfillment of a mitzvah or even a minhag, no beracha is warranted.
R. Sa'adiah Gaon's position may be that the purpose of the immersion is to purify oneself prior to a festival. As such, there is a fulfillment of a mitzvah or a minhag in the immersion. Alternatively, he may be of the opinion that the immersion is an act of repentance. This may also qualify as a type of minhag that warrants a beracha. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 606:4, rules that one does not recite a beracha on the immersion.