– Author: Rav Avichai Goodman

One of the most intensely debated halachic topics in the wake of our new reality during the era of the coronavirus is the issue of women immersing in the mikveh. Many women have, justifiably or not, been concerned about going to the mikveh over the past few months and immersing in the water.

In this essay, we will focus on the halachic question of whether women are allowed to wash themselves or take a shower with warm water and soap immediately after emerging from the mikveh, and if not, what the potential solutions might be. The main concern has been that perhaps the virus can be transmitted through the mikveh water or through other commonly used surfaces at the mikveh, and bathing or showering immediately following immersion would minimize any potential infection.

The Decree of Mayim She’uvim (Drawn Water)

The Gemara in Shabbat presents a ruling given by both Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai that “הבא ראשו ורובו במים שאובים טמא – One whose head and most of his body has come into drawn water [mayim she’uvim] is impure [by rabbinic decree].”

The Gemara[1] explains the principle underlying this ruling. In those days, people were forced to immerse in mikva’ot located in pits and caves, where the water was dirty and foul-smelling. Immediately after immersing, they would clean themselves with water from a well (classified as mayim she’uvim, drawn water).

The Gemara continues that according to Abaye, as a result of this practice, the general belief became that the tahara, or purification, was comprised of two stages; immersing in the mikveh and washing afterwards. On the other hand, according to Rabba, many believed that only the washing after the mikveh was the purifying stage, and the Sages were concerned that these erroneous beliefs would eventually lead to people cancelling the tevila and only washing in the well. Therefore, Chazal ruled that if three log of drawn water falls on the head of any person, both those who are pure as well as those who were recently impure, he becomes impure.[2]

What Was the Concern?

Rashi, in his commentary on the opinion of Rabba, explains[3] that over time immersing in a mikveh might be cancelled due to the public belief that one is purified specifically by washing in the drawn water, and not in the mikveh water. The Rambam in quoting this ruling offers a somewhat different explanation for this concern. The Rambam explains that[4] one must be concerned that many will believe that only washing in the drawn water purifies people while the mikveh does not make any difference, “והיו טובלין בזלזול בלא כוונה”, “and they would immerse with a derogatory attitude toward it without proper intent.”

The Halacha

Regardless of the specific concern, it is clear from the Gemara that Chazal prohibited washing in drawn water after dipping in the mikveh. Based on this enactment, the Mordechai cites Rabbeinu Shevet as ruling that a woman who washed herself after dipping in the mikveh would have to immerse again as her original immersion would be disqualified.

On the other hand, the Mordechai[5] writes in the name of the Ra’avya that the abovementioned Gemara does not prove that a nidda may not bathe in drawn water after immersing in the mikveh. The reason is that the Gemara was referring to a person who immersed in the mikveh in order to eat teruma, as explained there by Rashi.[6] This is different than immersing to purify oneself to her husband, which is treated as a chullin (mundane) case, as indicated by the Gemara elsewhere,[7] and is not included in the enactment mentioned in the Gemara in Shabbat. In fact, the Ra’avya writes with regard to permitting a woman to her husband that she is even permitted lechatchila to wash herself after immersing in the mikveh. The Beit Yosef[8] adds that he heard that the Maharam permitted this as well, like the Ra’avya.

Rav Moshe Isserles in the Darkei Moshe[9] adds a list of Ashkenazi poskim who also permit this, including Tosafot Rid,[10] the Agur,[11] Sha’arei Dura,[12] and the Semag.[13] But despite all of these Rishonim who permit the practice, Rav Isserles concludes in the Rema that the minhag is to be more stringent and not wash after immersing.

In his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch, the Rema[14] writes that even though a woman is technically permitted to wash after immersing “in order to warm herself,” some poskim rule that “she is forbidden from washing properly in water and this is the minhag.” The Levush[15] rules like the Rema as does the Aruch Hashulchan,[16] and it seems that the Shach and Taz also agree, as they do not voice any dissenting opinion. Rav Ovadia Hadaya[17] rules that the (Sefardic) minhag is to be careful lechatchila not to shower after immersing, but many poskim disagree with the stringency of the Rema, including the Gra,[18] the Chida,[19] the Ben Ish Chai,[20] and Rav Ovadya Yosef.[21]

Is Washing Ever Allowed?

Even if Ashkenazim (and some Sefardim) generally take a strict approach to this custom, it is unclear precisely how long following the time of immersion the custom remains in effect. May a woman take a shower when she returns home? Must she wait until twenty-four hours later? Rav Moshe Feinstein[22] understands that a limitation to the time of the prohibition must exist, as otherwise “women would be forbidden from washing forever.” He concludes that the prohibition applies only to the day of the immersion, meaning that a woman who immersed at the start of the night is prohibited from washing until sundown of the next day because most women do not have a problem with “not washing for one day,” and can observe the minhag without difficulty. He adds though that in a particular case where a woman has difficulty with the custom, one can be more lenient, since it is based on a minority opinion.

On the other hand, Rav Shmuel Wosner[23] claims that the prohibition does not apply from the moment that the woman returns home from the mikveh. In his opinion, the enactment of Chazal applies only to washing in close proximity to the time of her immersion, but from the moment she comes in contact with her husband after returning home, the immersion is considered complete and she may bathe as she wishes. Rav Ovadia Yosef[24] appears to agree with Rav Wosner as well.

Even Rav Feinstein who rules more strictly is lenient for a woman who finds it difficult to refrain from showering for a whole day. In such a case, he rules that “she must be permitted” because the chumra (stringency) is a “da’at yachid” (minority opinion) and such stringencies should only be practiced by the majority of people. But individuals with a great need should not be concerned with a da’at yachid.

The Difference Between a Bath and a Shower

Another potential direction for leniency is to distinguish between bathing and taking a shower. Rav Avraham Yehoshua Bleich in his sefer Chok Uzeman[25] reports hearing from Rav Eliashiv that the prohibition of washing after tevila applies only to a bath and not to a shower. His reasoning is that the water in a bath is all considered one unit and the woman is therefore considered to be bathing in three log of drawn water. In contrast, water in a shower is not considered one unit as each drop is sprayed independently. Therefore, Rav Eliashiv would permit showering even immediately after tevila.

Nevertheless, even this heter is not so simple. Rav Eliashiv’s distinction between a bath and a shower was stated in the context of the tevila of a ba’al keri (one who has a nocturnal emission), for whom it is sufficient to wash in nine kav of water (an amount that is more than three log). Rav Eliashiv claimed that showering is not sufficient to purify a ba’al keri. But Rav Bleich notes that many poskim disagree with him and permit a ba’al keri to shower because they hold that shower water is also considered to be one unit and would qualify as nine kav. Rav Bleich therefore concludes that those poskim who are more lenient than Rav Eliashiv concerning a ba’al keri would certainly be stricter with a woman immersing in the mikveh and not permit showering. Since some of those poskim who disagree with Rav Eliashiv are very prominent, including the Minchat Yitzchak[26] and Rav Wosner,[27] he believes that it is very difficult to permit a woman showering after immersion.

Corona Guidelines

In light of the current coronavirus, the question of women washing after tevila has arisen in a practical way once again. As mentioned above, many women fear that the virus might be transferred through the mikveh water or elsewhere on the premises and therefore wish to wash themselves after tevila to prevent infection.[28]

Ideally, the ideal practice from the perspective of health considerations is to wash oneself with soap and water immediately after immersion in the mikveh. Nevertheless, the instructions given by Israel’s Ministry of Health[29] prohibit washing in the mikveh building so as to both minimize the time that women spend there and also the chance of touching additional surfaces in the mikveh. Therefore, the recommended health guidelines are that a woman should wash herself with soap and water immediately upon returning home and should avoid touching any surfaces or individuals until she does so.

Based upon the sources we have seen, Sefardim might be permitted to do so even according to the standard halachic practice, which according to many does not prohibit bathing following immersion in the mikveh. In terms of the Ashkenazic custom, Rav Feinstein would certainly not allow it in a normal situation, as in his opinion the custom extends until sundown of the next day. as reported by the Rema would seem to forbid this. Moreover, with regard to the time limitation of the custom, both Rav Feinstein and Rav Wosner agree that one may not wash while still on the mikveh premises. Nevertheless, Rav Feinstein would likely allow it in the current situation, similar to the case addressed there of a specific woman with difficulty.[30]

According to Rav Wosner as well, there may be room for leniency in our case. Rav Wosner concluded that in order to permit washing, two conditions must exist: Returning home and touching her husband. When a woman returns home from the mikveh and she is in physical contact with her husband, the process of purification has been completed, and it is difficult to state that at this stage any washing is still connected to the purification process.

The same principle applies to our case. When a woman returns home, she regards herself as having completed the purification process and only the concern of spreading the virus is preventing her from touching her husband. Thus, there should be no concern that she will consider washing at home as part of the purification process.

This lenient conclusion was reached by both Rav Asher Weiss[31] as well as Rav Hershel Schachter[32] concerning the coronavirus.

[1] Shabbat 14a

[2] The reason that all those who were previously pure also needed to be included in the decree was that otherwise the general public might mistakenly think that one would had just immersed is considered pure like anyone else.

[3]Shabbat 14a, s.v. ela eilu

[4] Mishneh Torah, She’ar Avot HaTuma 9: 1

[5] Mordechai, Shavuot Remez 740

[6] Shabbat 14a, s.v. hitchilu

[7] Chullin 31a

[8] Ibid.

[9] Darkei Moshe, Y.D. 201:30.

[10] Responsa of the Rid, siman 73

[11] Siman 1400

[12] Hilchot Nidda, siman 20. It should be noted that the Sha’arei Dura brings the opinion of Rabbeinu Shevet as permitting washing, while the Mordechai quoted above cites him as being more stringent.

[13] Semag, Lavin 38, 111d

[14] Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 201:75

[15] To Y.D. 201:75

[16] To Y.D. 201:75

[17] Responsa Yaskil Avdi 7:8:4 (found in the Kuntres Acharon at the end of Volume 7)

[18] Y.D. 201:127

[19] Shiyurei Beracha, Y.D. 101:25

[20] Responsa Rav Pe’alim 4:15

[21] Responsa Yabia Omer, Vol. 8, Y.D. 19; Taharat HaBayit, Vol. 2, Mishmeret HaTahara, p. 524.

[22] Responsa Igrot Moshe, Y.D. 2:96

[23] Responsa Shevet HaLevi 5:125

[24]Responsa Yabia Omer, Vol. 7, Y.D. 19:1.

[25] Hilchot Yom Hatevila, Chok Umishpat, comment 7.

[26] 4:21

[27] Responsa Shevet HaLevi 1:24

[28] It must be clarified that all healthcare systems have agreed that no risk exists of the virus spreading through the mikveh water itself (due to the presence of chlorine), but rather inside the other facilities, on door handles, etc.

[29] The Israeli Ministry of Health guidelines are available at https://www.gov.il/he/departments/general/sharpening_guidelines_service_in_the_mikvahs. See also guidelines published by the OU at https://www.ou.org/covid-19-and-the-mikvah-recommended-protocols.

[30] See the ruling of Rav Schachter referenced in footnote 32, where Rav Schachter writes that it is a kal v’chomer that Rav Moshe would allow washing in the conditions presented by the coronavirus.

[31] Minchat Asher, Responsa Concerning the Coronavirus Pandemic, Second Edition, Siman 11

[32] https://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/950654/rabbi-hershel-schachter/piskei-corona-12-showering-after-the-mikvah.

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