Your First Visit to the Mikvah: What Happens at the Jewish Ritual Baths?
A previous article of mine entitled "How to prepare for your first visit to the Jewish ritual baths: the mikvah" explains how to prepare yourself at home and when and where to go for your first mikvah visit. Follow this link to help you determining at what point in your menstrual cycle to visit the mikvah. If you have found out where the local mikvah is and when it is open and feel ready for your visit then the following information will help put you at ease and let you know what to expect.
What to do on arriving at the mikvah
On entering the mikvah you will be greeted by a woman and shown to a private bathroom. There will be a toilet, sink and bath or shower available. Most mikvahs have toiletries and towels for you to use if you forget to bring. You will have the bathroom all to yourself, no need to think that lots of women will be looking at you naked. Don't forget modesty is also an important principle in Judaism. Sometimes in smaller communities the actual mikvah bath is in the same room where you wash.
In the bathroom you can wash and prepare yourself, either thoroughly or just have a quick wash if you have prepared yourself at home. If you have prepared yourself at home then once at the mikvah rinse your hair, wash your feet and private areas again. Then brush or comb through your hair, and check there are no stray hairs on your body. A mikvah normally has a supply of bathroom products (shampoo, soap, nail files) in case people forget theirs.
The principle of the mikvah is that the water reaches every part of you, so you need to remove plasters, false limbs, jewelry, piecing, hair extensions, false nails, false eye lashes and anything else which is not 100% you, including contact lenses.
Once you are clean and wrapped in a towel or robe then call the lady who works at the mikvah. This woman is called a Balanit, and she is the only one who sees you naked. Don't be embarrassed and remember she sees all shapes and sizes every evening.
Entering the mikvah
Having called the Balanit she will lead you to the ritual bath and before you enter she will check your body for stray hairs, dirt under your feet or nails, smudges of make up and any other missed areas. She does not touch you inappropriately or look at you too intimately; it is all done with modesty. The main areas she will check are your hands and feet and around your hair. She may ask if you wear contacts or other questions to check you have come at the right time of the month. At this point there is a prayer which can be read and if you would like to do that you can ask the Balanit who will have a copy on hand. Orthodox religious Jewish women do read this prayer before entering the water, but you won't be forced to in any way. Then you descend into the ritual bath which is similar to a small swimming pool. You enter right foot first, and the Balanit holds your towel.
Submerging yourself in the mikvah
Once in the water you will need to submerge yourself several times and also say a blessing in Hebrew. The number of times that you submerge yourself depends on your family origins. The women of some communities submerge themselves three times and others seven times, there could also be other variations in the number. Ask your mother, or close relative, otherwise ask the Balanit.
Once you have descended into the pool-like ritual bath (which is about the size of a large bath but deep enough to stand just with your head above water) you then make your first submersion in to the water while the Balanit watches to make sure you have not touched the walls, made fists or done any other action which will restrict the water's maximum contact with your skin. You keep your fingers and hands spread open, and arms slightly bent in front of you as you make a crouching movement and lift your feet off of the bottom of the bath, until you are fully submerged in the water. Once you have immerged the Balanit will say "kasher" meaning kosher, if the submersion was successful.
After your first dip under water you bring your arms in front of your chest for modesty while saying the blessing. The Hebrew blessing that you say is "Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech ha olam, asher kidushanu va'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al ha t'vila". While saying the mikvah blessing the Balanit will hold your towel or a cloth covering above you, as you would cover your head for any other blessing, like the blessing on the Sabbath candles. Having completed the mikvah blessing you complete the number of submersions required and then ascend the steps out of the ritual baths.
Once you have completed this ritual you are kosher for another two weeks or so of sexual intimacy with your husband before your next period. The women who work in a mikvah are generally understanding of first time users and the nerves and apprehensions that go along with this new experience, so don't feel embarrassed, ask any questions you may have and remember that for them it is all in a day's work!