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Sanctifying Sexuality:


As with all other aspects of life, there is a Jewish way to approach sex, providing a focus and a level of meaning even beyond the ecstatic, physical one.

Jewish tradition considers the sexual act to be extremely holy. Even sex undertaken without thought  to procreation, per se, is a sacred joining of flesh and spirit in which the Godhead itself is understood to participate and become suffused with joy.

The central Jewish practice concerning sex is the delineation of time when sex is permissible and when it is prohibited, based on a women's menstrual cycle.

While a woman is menstruating a man is forbidden to have sexual relations with her, according to the Bible (Lev. 18:19 and 20:18). Sexual relations are permitted again after the woman herself in a special pool, the mikveh. (From the Hebrew phrase, mivkah mayim hayim, a gathering of living waters). The result is that a couple's sexual life is marked by periods of abstinence and restraint.

First Person
One of the things I am truly coming to love about Judaism is its cyclical nature, the way the passing of time is marked from one Shabbat to the next, from sundown to sundown, from holiday to holiday. As I learn more about Judaism and increasingly pay more attention to its nuances I have become much more aware of the passage of time, changes in the seasons, the lengthening and shortening of days. I am attracted to the idea of keeping to the traditional rhythms of intimacy with my husband, to have that time "built in" to our days and weeks.

--Melisa C[Approval Pending].

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Thinking about separation

It may help to understand this by thinking about some of the aspects of kashrut, the rules of keeping kosher. According to the Torah, it is forbidden to seethe a kid in its motherís milk; it is forbidden to utilize a mothers milk, which represents the very essence of loving sustenance, as an agent for the consumption of her offspring -- representing the utmost cruelty and the utter confusion of categories.

Similarly, the Torah forbids the combination of sex, which can potentially create life, and menstruation, the death of that potential life. Life and death remain distinct. Each has its own power and mystery --a power we recognize when we use rituals to mark transitions from "death" to "life."

The Jewish practice of sexuality asks that we be mindful of the tremendous power of sexuality and procreation. It requires that we mark a time of separation as well as a time for sexual union -- that we distinguish between our own potential for creating life, from the death of that potential. The tradition invites our monthly rebirth in "living waters."  

First Person
When my oldest was 11, in an Orthodox day school, they started Talmud with the family purity laws. It was neat that the boys understood menstruation from a Jewish view point. There was NO bra snapping in that school.

--Eleanor G.

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The mikveh can be an actual gathering of "living waters" -- that is, a natural body like the ocean, a lake, a stream, a spring, or even a a cistern of rainwater. Or, it can be a pool which combines such waters (generally, rainwater) with ordinary well or tap water, in a manner specified by the rabbis to preserve its nature as "living water."

The mikveh is a powerful symbol. In the Torah, immersion in such water is part part of the ritual which transformed a person from a state of being impure or taboo (tamei) to one of being pure or clear (tahor).* As such, it marked the transition from death to rebirth.

The mikveh recalls the Garden of Eden, the source of all water. According to tradition, one emerges from the mikveh one emerges as pure and clear as the first man and woman created by God in Eden. The mikveh also symbolizes a womb, a return to the original moment of birth.

mikveh has other uses in Jewish life. Many visit the mikveh before the Sabbath or before Yom Kippur for spiritual purification. It is also used in the ritual of conversion, and for brides (and sometimes grooms) before a wedding.

In the last twenty years new mikveh rituals have been developed. For instance, mikveh is at times used in healing rituals, after miscarriage, illness, or trauma, such as rape or assault. It can also mark a move from sickness to health, from trauma to healing, or from grief to acceptance.


*Contrary to popular opinion the Biblical concept of purity and impurity (tamei and tahor) are not about cleanliness or pollution. The concepts are understood as "clear" and "murky" or "taboo." The impure state of tamei had several causes: sexual emissions; contact with dead bodies (animal and human); certain skin eruptions (Biblical leprosy); mildew on clothes or buildings; and childbirth. 


Waiting to Immerse

According to Rabbinic tradition a woman counts at least five days for her menstrual period. After she has ceased menstruating, she may then begin counting an additional seven clean days.

Once she has counted seven clean days she immerses in a mikveh.

Nowadays there are women (usually non-Orthodox women) who want to observe mikveh but feel that abstaining from sex twelve days a month (or more --depending on the length of menstruation) is excessive. Many of them count only seven days, including the days of menstruation, as the time for abstaining from sexual relations.  

Mishpacha participants on mikveh

Judaism and gender roles


In the

Before immersion, a woman must clean herself thoroughly. (The ritual of bathing in a mikveh has nothing to do with dirt or cleanliness.) She must remove all jewelry, nail polish, makeup, etcetera, so that there are no barriers between her and the waters of the mikveh.

After dipping under the water so that she's completely submerged, she recites the following blessing:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha-Olam Asher Kideshanu Be-Mitzvotav Ve-Tzivanu Al Hatvilah.

Blessed are You God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments and commanded us concerning immersion.

She then immerses twice more and is considered physically and spiritually purified, ready to resume sexual relations. There are different customs concerning how many times a woman dunks in the mikveh. For instance, some groups of Sephardic women dunk seven times.



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