This post originally appeared on Mayyim Hayyim’s blog, The Mikveh Lady Has Left the Building.
This semester, as part of my rabbinic education, I am taking a class on the book of Exodus. Recently, we’ve been studying the account of the revelation at Sinai. In the complicated choreography of Moses (and others) going up and down the mountain in chapters 19 and 24, a question arises regarding Moses’ instructions to the Israelites about preparations for receiving the Torah.
In Ex. 19:10-11, God tells Moses that the people should wash their clothes in order to be ready for God’s appearance on Sinai. In verse 14, we’re told that the people have done so, but in the next verse Moses makes his own addition to God’s instructions: אַל-תִּגְשו אֶל-אִשָּׁה, “Do not go near a woman.”
In the hetero-normative world of Torah, it would seem that Moses is now speaking to the men encamped at the base of the mountain. But God’s previous instructions were more inclusive. In verse 3, God tells Moses: “So you will say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel.” Concerned about the potential redundancy in “house of Jacob” and “sons of Israel,” Rashi identifies the first group as referring to women and the second, to men.
By comparison, the acceptance of the covenant in the last installation of the chumash (Five Books of Moses), in parshat Nitzavim, explicitly includes men, women, and children, both at that time and in the future (Deut. 29: 9-10).
It’s not at all clear what Moses intends with those four words; “Don’t go near a woman.” In all likelihood he is forbidding sexual intercourse. Indeed, this is how the phrase is almost universally understood.
The reason for the prohibition, following Rashi, is similarly widely accepted. Rashi believes that the abstinence is in order that the women may immerse themselves (in a mikveh) on the third day and be pure (spiritually ready) to receive the Torah. The idea being, that if any of the women in the camp had recently had intercourse, she would need three days to be considered ready for immersion, and in this case, ready for the revelation (Rashi on Exodus 19:15). Rashi, then, is bringing women back into the picture with Moses’ directive— and is also introducing the idea of mikveh.
This is an incredibly powerful idea in and of itself: Women have an equal share in the giving of Torah, and they are required to be in a state of ritual purity to receive it. In a text that has so far seen women’s value as principally procreative (especially in Genesis), to be full participants in the foundational Jewish narrative is near revolutionary. And we’re doing so through the mitzvah of mikveh.
But what’s more, the text demonstrates the primacy of mikveh itself. This might be the first allusion to the mitzvah in Torah. We don’t see the patriarchs immersing, and while we do have midrashim about the matriarchs’ practicing niddah, there is nothing as strongly suggestive in the Torah to this point as Moses’ charge to the Israelites at Sinai.
In preparation for the peak moment of the Israelites’ relationship with God, women visit the mikveh. A holy teaching for a sanctified people. And yet another reason to immerse, in remembrance of this transformational moment.