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Shabbat Parashat Nitzavim 5778

Ask the Rabbi: Men Going to the Mikveh before Rosh Hashana

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: I was not brought up going to the mikveh before Rosh Hashana (only before Yom Kippur). Should I start doing so? What are the reasons and rules for this tevilla?


Answer: The Tur (Orach Chayim 606) cites the minhag to immerse before Yom Kippur, based on direct sources from the Geonim, and the Shulchan Aruch (OC 606:4) treats it as a fact. Regarding Rosh Hashana, the earliest sources are from Ashkenazi Rishonim, and it is cited by the Rama (OC 581:4), not the Shulchan Aruch, and as a minhag that some follow. The minhag has spread to most Sephardim, and the majority of people who do one, do both.

The basis of the minhag relates to men’s impurity after a seminal discharge, which was of practical importance around the Beit Hamikdash and for those handling teruma. Thousands of years ago, Ezra instituted that men should not utter holy matters (e.g., Torah and tefilla) without removing that impurity (Bava Kama 82a). However, this practice was not fully accepted and was phased out (Berachot 22b). Nevertheless, there have always been those who followed Ezra’s practice (see Rambam, Tefilla 4:6; Mishna Berura 88:4). At important times, people may strive for higher levels of purity (see Rosh Hashana 16b). The time we try to be at our purest and observe Torah at the most stringent level is Yom Kippur and the days that precede it (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 603:1). Therefore, the simplest explanation of the minhag of tevilla for men, posited by the Rama (OC 606:4; see Torat Hamoadim, Yamim Noraim, p. 33), is that it is a limited enforcement of Ezra’s purification requirement.

The rule of thumb is that one does not have to do more than Ezra required. Therefore, since one with a discharge could suffice with nine kabin (approximately, 12 liters) of water being poured over his head, this also suffices for the Yamim Nora’im (Rama, ibid.). The Magen Avraham (ad loc. 9) limits this leniency to cases in which going to the mikveh includes hardship; the Rama’s opinion on this is unclear (see Machatzit Hashekel ad loc.). An average shower in which one stays under the water flow throughout definitely has enough water. One can be lenient to assume that the fact that the water flows itself without being poured by a human is not a problem in this context (see Torat Hamoadim, ibid. p. 29). Thus, even one who does not go to the mikveh likely fulfills the minhag’s main element.

There are different opinions as to when the proper time to go to the mikveh is before Yom Kippur. The Shulchan Aruch says that any time of day is fine, but some say it should be before Mincha, which has elements of Yom Kippur tefilla (see Mishna Berura 606:18). The Chayei Adam (II, 144:7) says that it should not be done earlier than an hour before chatzot. Logic dictates that any time after the night solves the problem of discharges, which hints that the Yom Kippur minhag likely has other elements to it.

The Tur cites Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (45) as a reason for the tevilla, comparing our spiritual purity on Yom Kippur to that of angels. The Maharil (see Darchei Moshe, OC 606:3) compares it to the immersion of a convert and says that one should therefore not rely on the pre-Rosh Hashana tevilla even if he had no discharges between then and Yom Kippur. The Magen Avraham (606:8) explains that halacha as being because the tevilla is part of the teshuva process, which he also views as a reason to dunk three times (others suggest, based on Kabbalistic sources, higher numbers and the recitation of viduy in the water).

The additional elements apply to Yom Kippur more than to Rosh Hashana. Nevertheless, the Mishna Berura (581:26) applies the matter of timing to Rosh Hashana as well, and the Kaf Hachayim (OC 581:82-83) suggests multiple dunkings with different contemplations for Rosh Hashana as well.

In short, if one is in a community in which most men go to the mikveh before Rosh Hashana, it is proper but not a fully required practice for individuals to do so. A chazan or ba’al tokei’ah should definitely go to the mikveh (see Magen Avraham 581:9).

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