To prepare for mikveh immersion, a woman cleans herself thoroughly and removes any foreign object (chatzitzah) that might intervene between her body and the water of the mikveh. This process is called chafifah (cleansing). Immediately prior to immersion, she checks her body and hair to ensure that they are free of chatzitzot. This is called iyun (inspection).
How to Prepare for Mikveh Immersion
A foreign object that adheres to the body or hair, preventing contact with the water of the mikveh, is called a chatzitzah (barrier), and may invalidate the immersion. Halacha requires that foreign material be removed, even if it does not disturb her or adhere tightly to her body or hair. Knotted hair also constitutes a chatzitzah, as the knots cannot come into full contact with the mikveh water.
To prevent such problems, a woman should follow a series of steps, summarized below, in preparation for immersing in the mikveh. These include both cleansing (chafifah) and inspection (iyun). Most mikvaot have checklists in the preparation rooms to prevent inadvertent omission of any of the required steps.
Cleansing is required by rabbinic decree. Originally, only a thorough washing of the hair (the literal meaning of chafifah) was required, but the law was subsequently extended to include the entire body. A woman should do the following:
1) She should remove obvious barriers, such as clothing, jewelry, or contact lenses.
2) Bandages should also be removed. If bandages or other items cannot be removed for medical reasons, she should consult a rabbi.
3) Because dirt beneath the nails is a chatzitzah, the custom is to cut nails short.
4) She should remove all makeup. If she has permanent makeup, hair dye, or a well-maintained manicure that she is reluctant to remove, she should consult a rabbi.
5) She should wash her hair with warm water and shampoo. The hair on her head must be thoroughly combed with a comb; other body hair may be separated with the fingers.
6) Hair that is still attached to her body, even where it is undesired (e.g., leg or underarm hair) is not a chatzitzah. But since some authorities maintain that this leniency does not apply to hair about to be removed, a woman who is about to cut or shave her hair should do so before immersing. She should take care to wash away the removed hairs. For this reason it is recommended to shave earlier that day or on the day prior to immersion.
7) She should wash her entire body with soap and water. Preferably, she should use only warm water, but if there is a limited supply, she may wash her body with cold water and save the warm water for washing her hair. While it is customary to bathe in a bathtub, she may take a shower instead, as long as she is careful to wash her entire body.
8) Parts of the body whose natural form prevents water from entering (e.g., the armpits, under the breasts, and other crevices) are known as beit hastarim – hidden places. These areas need not actually come in contact with the mikveh water, but they must not be prevented from doing so by any chatzitzah. Therefore, they must be cleaned thoroughly, and often require special attention. Similar rules apply to internal parts of the body – in particular, the inside of the mouth. Therefore, she should thoroughly brush and floss her teeth. Permanent fillings and crowns are not considered chatzitzot, but temporary dental work may be problematic, and a rabbi should be consulted.
Inspection prior to immersion is required by Torah law.
1) She should visually inspect all visible parts of her body to ensure that they are free of foreign material.
2) She should inspect the other parts of her body by touch.
3) She should check her hair for knots.
When to Prepare for Mikveh Immersion
The Talmud cites two opinions regarding the timing of this cleansing (chafifah) – either at night, right before the inspection before the immersion, or earlier during the afternoon, so that she does not prepare hastily or carelessly under time pressure. The preferred way is to follow both opinions, by starting during the day and continuing into the night. But if circumstances (e.g., work, young children, lack of warm water) make this difficult, either alternative is acceptable.
Sometimes, the timing of chafifah is affected by other halachic considerations. Many elements of preparation (e.g., washing hair, cutting nails) are not permitted on Shabbat or Yom Tov. Therefore, a woman who will immerse on Friday night must complete all her preparations during the day. A woman who will go to the mikveh Saturday night should do a complete chafifah on Friday afternoon, be careful over Shabbat not to entangle her hair and then repeat a brief chafifah and final hair combing on Saturday night.
A woman who will immerse on the second night of Yom Tov, on Friday night following a Yom Tov, or on Yom Tov following Shabbat, must prepare on the last available weekday – even if this is several days before her immersion. Immediately prior to immersion, she should clean her teeth, separate strands of her hair with her fingers, and wash any parts of her body that may have become dirty, being careful to observe all the relevant Shabbat or Yom Tov restrictions.
In all circumstances, she must inspect herself immediately before she immerses.
Where to Prepare for Mikveh Immersion
A woman may prepare for immersion either at home or at the mikveh, whichever is more convenient. Most modern mikvaot have preparation rooms with showers and bathtubs. Mikveh protocol varies somewhat with geographical location. Larger mikvaot are generally well-supplied with soap, shampoo, towels, and other necessary equipment, sometimes for a nominal fee. In smaller towns, a woman may be expected to bring the supplies she needs from home. For hygienic reasons, toothbrushes and similar items should be brought from home, but they can often be purchased at the mikveh if necessary.
A woman who prepared at home should comb her hair again at the mikveh, wet her body and hair in the shower, and inspect herself immediately before immersing. For the procedure on Shabbat see Mikveh Preparation on Erev Shabbat and Yom Tov.
What to Bring to the Mikveh
Some women find it helpful to have a checklist of items to pack when they go to the mikveh. As individual needs vary, we have suggested the following categories to assist you in compiling your own such list. What you actually need to take depends on what is available in your mikveh (there are mikvaot that supply just about everything on this list) and what preparations you do at home.
- For washing body – washcloth, brush, loofah, sponge, soap.
- For makeup removal if you wear make up – nail polish remover, cold cream.
- For cleaning and preparing hair – shampoo, conditioner (if you need to get out knots and it does not leave film), brush, comb.
- For removing hair (if you do this at the mikveh) – razor, depilatory.
- For cleaning teeth – toothbrush, toothpaste, floss.
- For cleaning or preparing nails – clipper, scissors, file, emery board (depending what you generally use).
- For removing and replacing contact lenses – saline and cleaning solutions, case.
- Cotton tip applicators for crevices such as ears and belly button.
- Toothpicks for teeth or under nails, if you prefer.
- Facial tissues.
- Towel, if not provided at the mikveh.
- Money for the mikveh fee, and for bedikah cloths if you need to buy them. (Money for the tzedakah box that is generally present is also a nice idea.)
Other items that might make you comfortable:
- Reading material or something to do if you will have to wait.
- Slippers to get from preparation room to mikveh.
- Clean underwear for after the mikveh (colored is a good idea – see article on stains for explanation).
- Makeup and/or contact lenses for after the mikveh.