Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), pp. 314-15.
The high spiritual value connected to frequent immersion in the ritual bath (mikveh) is stressed in Hasidism from its early beginnings and in every branch of the movement, though there is a hasidic tradition that, because of an infirmity, the Maggid of Mezhirech did not follow the practice. Had he done so, the Besht is reported as saying, he would have brought the Messiah, a saying that was later rationized to mean that by the power of his holy thoughts while in the mikveh, the Maggid would have been responsible for such penitential fervor among Jews that it would have succeeded in bringing the Messiah. Apart from this there is not a single instance of the hasidic masters’ or their followers’ neglecting the rite of immersion.
The Talmud speaks of Ezra’s ordaining immersion after marital relations and forbidding the study of the Torah or the recital of prayers until the rite had taken place. The reason given for the enactment is that it would act as a check on overindulgence by the scholars. But the Talmud (Ber. 22a) finally records that “the immersion of Ezra” was eventually abolished, a rule recorded in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 88:1) as the established custom. However, there were still many in the post-talmudic period, including, it is said, Maimonides, who faithfully observed the immersion of Ezra.
Consequently, hasidic emphasis on this was no innovation and even had a semi-halakhic basis, which probably explains the paucity of attacks on hasidic ablutions in the anti-hasidic polemics, the mitnaggedim complaining, occasionally, only about the undue frequency of hasidic immersions. The hasidic master Kalonymus Kalman Epstein of Cracow (Maor VaShemesh, emor, beg. [Tel Aviv, 1964], p. 140) insists that the immersion of Ezra was abolished only for the masses. Those who wish to study the Torah and pray “in dread and fear” cannot afford to neglect it, and it is especially important for the study of the Kabbalah. Shabbetai Tzvi’s study of the Kabbalah led to heresy because he and his followers did not observe the immersion of Ezra.
In addition to this semi-obligatory immersion, Hasidism encouraged regular ablutions as an aid to purity of body and soul, as an essential means of attuning the mind to prayer, as a necessary rite to be performed before welcoming the Sabbath and the Festivals and before visiting the rebbe (among some hasidic groups, such as in Chernobyl), before carrying out any mitzvah, and as an act of divine worship in itself.
A number of early hasidic texts (e.g., Likkutim Yekarim, [Jerusalem, 1974], no. 178, p. 56b, and Keter Shem Tov [Jerusalem, 1968], pp. 24b-25a) remark that the Besht attained to his lofty spiritual rank and received all his illuminations only because of his frequent ablutions and that these are far more spiritually helpful than fasting, which weakens the body. Attributed to Aaron of Karlin is the observation that the prophet Ezekiel had his prophetic vision beside the water and in the same way, whereas prophecy is impossible outside the Holy Land in normal circumstances. Yet, through immersion in the living waters of the mikveh, one can attain to the prophetic spirit even nowadays. A favorite motif in hasidic legend is the ability of the tzaddik to work miracles as a result of his immersion in the mikveh.
The alleged “kavvanot (mystical intentions) of the Besht for the mikveh” are quoted in a number of hasidic works (e.g., Likkutim Yekarim, Yosher Divrei Emet, no. 42, pp. 134-35; Keter Shem Tov, p. 2b; and Siddur HaRav, Appendix 5, pp. 629-630). The hasid, while in the mikveh, concentrates on various combinations of divine names, for example, the name “kna,” which has the same numerical value as “mikveh.” Significantly, these kavvanot differ in certain respects from the Lurianic kavvanot for the mikveh, a fact acknowledged by the hasidic masters, who seek to justify the Besht’s new kavvanot, and which, no doubt, reflects the new emphasis given to the rite in Hasidism.
Hasidic theory has much to say about the mystical significance of the mikveh. The gathering of water represents the Sefirah, Binah, the world of the divine thought, of total unity in which there is neither multiplicity nor division. Water is transparent, symbolizing that stage in the divine creative process in which there is no color—the symbol of differentiation—but only the completely uncontrolled flow of divine grace.
Immersion in the mikveh brings about humanity’s attachment to this stage, washes away the stain of sin and restores us to our source so that we emerge as a “new creature,” reborn for a life of holiness. Just as at the beginning of creation water covered the earth, the water of the mikveh represents the “world of concealment,” whereas human beings, created from the dust of the earth, represent the “world of revelation.” When we immerse ourself in the mikveh we attach the revealed world to its hidden source and assist the unification process.
Immersion in the mikveh is part of the rite of conversion to Judaism. If, it is argued, immersion can change the status of a gentile to that of a Jew a fortiori, then it can bring an additional influx of sanctity to one already in a state of holiness. Thus the rite is no longer seen as a merely negative procedure whereby the taint of impurity gets removed. It is rather a positive means of increasing purity and holiness, of enabling one to ascend ever higher. The rite is also linked with the typical hasidic doctrine of self-annihilation—the loss of selfhood in the quest for the divine. The letters of tevilah (immersion) are virtually the same as those of bittul (annihilation). The whole body enters the waters of the mikveh to become, as it were, submerged in the divine. One’s grasping ego transcended, one can now reach out to God in perfect freedom.
Hasidism developed its own rules regarding immersion and its own folklore on the subject. The usual practice was to dip under the water three times, but some hasidim considered it to be meritorious to add to these. As an atonement for sin, it was advised to dip fourteen times. Out of one’s regard for the purifying effects of the mikveh, it is often the practice to leave some of the water on the beard and side-locks.
In the name of the Besht, R. Hanokh Heinokh of Alexander is reported to have issued a guarantee that even in the coldest weather, no harm would come from a visit to the mikveh. It was widely held that to bathe the eyes with mikveh water had a curative effect and that for a husband to bathe expressly for the purpose while his wife was in labor would ensure an easy birth. Hasidic tales tell of the tzaddikim’s immersing in the ice-cold water of the mikveh, their holiness causing the water to come to the boil. Although there are halakhic objections to battling the whole body on the Sabbath, the hasidim relied on the more lenient view because of the importance of ablutions in their scheme.
A. Wertheim, Halakhot VeHalikhot BaHasidut, pp. 66-68,144-145.