Orthodox Ritual Bathing?
June 6, 2011 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Orthodox-in-JerusalemFilter: I watched Eyes Wide Open last night and found it, unexpectedly, quite moving. I'd like to know more about a central image and I'm not finding it online, so I hope an Orthodox and/or Israeli MeFite can shed some light. Dip in, for more details...

The film details the tortured relationship between a butcher, who's a married father of four, and an at-loose-ends young man. Unable to stay apart, even with all the layers of familial, social, and religious opposition, they eventually embark on a sexual relationship. Near the beginning of the film, the younger man talks the older into driving to a pool or bath, somewhere outside the city of Jerusalem, that appears to be spring-fed (they mention how cold the water is...). By the logic of the story, it cannot be too far from the city, as they drove there in a car, left while it was daylight and arrived while it was still light outside. The pool had stone steps, hewn into its side. When the younger man says, "I want to go to the pools" (in subtitles; I don't speak any Hebrew), the older man knows immediately to what he's referring. (There's more to the pool's place in the story, but I don't want to be too spoilerish).

Does this sound familiar to anyone? Is this site famous and/or of religious significance? What is the significance to what at least appears to be ritualistic total immersion?
posted by OneMonkeysUncle to Religion & Philosophy (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Note: I haven't seen this film, and I'm not an Orthodox Jew, but it sounds like a Mikveh to me.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:51 AM on June 6, 2011

I saw Eyes Wide Open, but it was over a year ago...

It was clearly a pool that's used as a mikvah, but I don't know if the one referenced and shown in the movie is a specific famous one. I know there are some mikvaot in Israel that are old and considered sort of...special. For example, the Ari's Mikvah - obviously not the one in the film, but that blurb will give you an idea of the significance of some special mikvaot.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:55 AM on June 6, 2011

It sounds like it might be the pool at Lifta, a Palestinian village just outside Jerusalem.
posted by Paquda at 9:57 AM on June 6, 2011

Picture of orthodox boys in the pool at Lifta: pic.
posted by Paquda at 10:00 AM on June 6, 2011

Response by poster: Ah, now I understand (it also explains the butcher's wife's line about having visited the ritual bath that day as a prelude to having sex, which I didn't fully comprehend at the time). None of the linked pictures are of the location in the film - it's out in the open, in an unpopulated place, as if the pool were a naturally occurring thing. Now that I've read about a mikveh, I see that the specific location wouldn't be that important; that it's a mikveh itself is the point.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 10:17 AM on June 6, 2011

The religious significance of the mikveh is for purity. Women will immerse after their niddah period (unclean) before resuming sexual relations (or in some ultra orthodox, any physical touching) with their husband. Additionally, men will go to mikveh before shabbat and Yom Kippur, although some charedi men will go to mikveh daily. Additionally, there are mikvehs used to immerse dishes, pots and pans for koshering. The idea is that it is less about physical hygiene that it is a spiritual cleansing. In fact, women must shower and scrub like crazy before considered able to immerse.

From Chabad: A mikvah must be built into the ground or built as an essential part of a building. The mikvah must contain a minimum of two hundred gallons of rainwater that was gathered and siphoned into the mikvah pool in accordance with a highly specific set of regulations. In extreme cases where the acquisition of rainwater is impossible, ice or snow originating from a natural source may be used to fill the mikvah. As with the rainwater, an intricate set of laws surrounds its transport and handling.

My note: Though a stream of natural running water is kosher as a mikveh.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:09 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So, Sophie1, must a mikveh be constructed by Man, or can it be a a naturally occurring pool, filled by a spring? In the film, the mikveh was set into the ground - they stepped down three or four steps to reach the surface of the water - and I'd guess the water was maybe four feet deep, so the "hole" in the ground was probably on the order of seven or eight feet. The surrounding area looked, at least to my American eyes, like desert with a dirt road passing through it - it's hard to imagine the level of the water maintained by rainwater alone, which is why I assumed it must be spring-fed.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 1:37 PM on June 6, 2011

It's possible that the pool is fed by man-made underground water tunnels which Jerusalem and its surrounding hills are full of. Some of those tunnels are thousands of years old.
posted by atrazine at 2:15 PM on June 6, 2011

There are a lot of super-complicated rules about what makes a mikvah kosher/acceptable for ritual use. Some natural bodies of water are considered acceptable but some aren't. (I don't remember the details, but some books on taharat hamishpacha - family purity - contain an overview of what would make a particular stream or lake OK or not OK in case you don't have access to a formal, constructed mikvah.)

Water is supposed to be from a natural source and transported/channeled in a specific way, but there are ways around that so that not ALL of the water must come in that way. Loosely: typically there are two interconnected pools, one filled with rainwater initially, the other filled with tap or other water, and the tap (or other) water pool is then technically a kosher mikvah. I believe this is generally the status quo in modern mikvaot.
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:14 PM on June 6, 2011

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