A Dip in the Depths of Mikveh
A few years ago when I was studying in yeshiva, I adopted the custom of going to the mikveh (spiritually purifying bath) every erev Shabbat (Friday afternoon). This I have kept up all these years. A while ago I heard it mentioned that there are actually certain kavanot (holy thoughts) that a person should have each time he immerses himself, seven in total. Is this true? If so, what are they? And if it is true, how is a person allowed to have a religious kavana (thought) in the mikveh?
Many people immerse in a mikveh Friday afternoon to honor the Shabbat. Of course, there is a special mitzvah to bathe for cleanliness in honor and preparation for the Shabbat. However, immersion in the mikveh is not for the purposes of becoming physically clean, but rather to become spiritually purified.
Since mikveh is essentially a spiritual experience, the number of “dips” and the intentions one should have are of a spiritual nature that isn’t always readily understood. Therefore I’ll focus on the more “revealed” explanations of the number of dips and their kavanot, leaving the able learner to investigate the sources discussing the more esoteric dimension of mikveh on his own.
Keep in mind that if the surroundings of the mikveh are clean of refuse, and one closes his eyes or doesn’t see unclothed skin, a person is permitted to have in mind the kavanot, when the body is covered by the water of the mikveh.
Although there are many different customs regarding the number of dips and the kavanot that one should keep in mind, here are seven of the main ones.
Two dips: The first to remove the spiritual “garments” or aura of the weekday, and the second to become enveloped in the spiritual “garments” of Shabbat. If he is ritually impure (for example because of keri, a certain bodily emission) he needs one more dip before these two. (Arizal, Pri Etz Chaim, Sha’ar Hakavanot)
Three dips: To purify the three “lower” aspects or levels of soul. In ascending order, the first for nefesh associated with the physical plane, the second for ruach operative on the plane of speech, and the third for neshama on the plane of thought and intellect. For more detail see our article on “Soul”. (Ben Ish Chai, 2nd year, Lech Lecha, note 16)
Four dips: Corresponding to the four letters of G-d’s name — yud, hey and vav, hey — in order to integrate the holiness of the four-letter name of G-d into the fiber and fabric of our physical and spiritual being. (Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avodah).
Five dips: To purify all five levels of the soul. Nefesh, ruach and neshama, as mentioned above, plus the two higher levels of soul called chayah and yechidah. There are five different kavanot to have in mind when performing each of these dips: At the first dip, purity from keri (emission); the second, spiritual cleansing from anger; the third, to remove the spiritual “garment” of the weekdays; the fourth, to remove “ruach” of weekdays; and the fifth to receive tosefet kedusha (additional sanctity) of Shabbat. (Ben Ish Chai, 2nd year, Lech Lecha, note 16)
Seven dips: This corresponds to many important “sevens” in Judaism. (Kaf HaChaim 260:4-6)
Ten dips: This was the custom of the Chatam Sofer. Similarly, it corresponds to several important “tens” in Judaism such as the commandments, the sefirot and more. (Tomer Devorah ch. 4, Kaf HaChaim 260:4-6)
Thirteen dips: Thirteen is the gematria (numerical value) of the word “echad” which means “one” (as in “G-d is One”). It is also the gematria of the Hebrew word “ahava” which means love (as in “You shall love your G-d”). The result of our declaration of G-d’s unity (13) with love (13) is twenty-six, which is the gematria of G-d’s four-letter name. Immersing in this way, with this in mind, thereby fulfills the verse, “The mikveh of Israel is G-d”, on which Rabbi Akiva expounded: Just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so G-d purifies the Jewish People. Regarding the more intricate kavanot, see source. (Kaf HaChaim 260:4-6)