Concern rising over mikveh use amid coronavirus epidemic

Orthodox women arbiters of Jewish law tell women not to immerse in mikvaot if they cannot confirm hygiene of mikveh, prominent religious-Zionist leader tells women not to delay immersion

A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative] (photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative]
(photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
As well as having an unprecedented impact on modern life and society, the coronavirus pandemic is having far-reaching consequences on the religious and intimate lives of observant Jews in Israel.
As the virus continues to spread in the Jewish state, increasing concern has been voiced about the safety of mikvaot, ritual baths, in which religious women immerse once a month after their menstrual cycle has ended.
The question became more acute this week, after it emerged that a woman who had been infected with coronavirus but was asymptomatic immersed in a public mikveh in Efrat, meaning that other women who had immersed there had to go into quarantine.
Figures released on Tuesday by an advisory body to the Health Ministry showed that one percent of those who contracted coronavirus in Israel had been infected in a mikveh, amounting to approximately three cases. 
Jewish law strongly forbids sexual relations between husband and wife before the woman has immersed in a mikva, and so access to mikvaot is critical for normal marital life.
In a drastic decision written last week, two Orthodox women arbiters of Jewish law ruled that women should refrain from immersing in mikvaot if they cannot be certain that the requisite hygiene standards are adhered to and in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision was co-authored by two Orthodox women who have received qualifications to rule on Jewish law in the field of family purity, Dr. Chana Adler Lazarovits and Rabbanit Sarah Segel-Katz.
Adler Lazarovits was ordained to rule on matters of Jewish law in the field of family purity by the Rosh Yeshiva of Otniel Yeshiva, and is currently a student at the Jewish law program of Midreshet Ein Hanatsiv and Yeshivat Maale Gilboa. Segel-Katz received her ordination to rule on Jewish law from the Jewish Law Program for Women of Beit Morasha and studied at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa and Beit Midrash Har'el.
The ruling for those who adhere to it would have significant consequences for family life, a fact not lost on the authors who wrote it, who said that couples would have to indefinitely extend the period in which they cannot have sexual relations.
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a prominent arbiter of Jewish law in the religious-Zionist community, ruled on Monday however that since the commandment for a woman to immerse after her menstrual cycle is so crucial, it should not be postponed.
He argued that since the Health Ministry has not banned immersion in a mikveh despite the coronavirus pandemic, and that since danger is present in many walks of life, women should continue to immerse, although should prepare for it at home instead of in the mikveh building.
Adler Lazarovits and Segel-Katz took a different view however.
In their decision, they noted that the Health Ministry has not issued a statement declaring mikvaot to be safe.
They said therefore that in a situation where it is impossible to ensure the requisite standards of hygiene are being upheld, and due to the danger to life posed by coronavirus, women should not immerse, arguing that the precept of not endangering ones life supersede the necessity of physical contact and marital relations.
In their position paper, Adler Lazarovits and Segel-Katz cited the difficulties of guaranteeing that mikvaot are sufficiently hygienic and that adequate disinfection measures are taken to ensure that they do not become vectors for spreading Covid-19.
They noted that research conducted in 2015 on the state of public mikvaot by the Institute for Zionist Strategies found that 75% of public mikvaot do not have the requisite operating license, meaning that the Health Ministry cannot ensure requisite hygiene standards are being upheld.
Segel-Katz told The Jerusalem Post that over the last two weeks she and Adler Lazarovits had spoken with “dozens” of women who have immersed in public mikvaot as well as mikveh attendants, and found that mikveh attendants alone monitor and disinfect the water, and that supervision of the hygiene standards by the Health Ministry is conducted once a year in small towns, and once a month in large cities.
The authors added that the Health Ministry and local religious councils have “almost no mechanisms” in place for supervising the results of disinfection during and after a mikveh’s use, and said they had discovered that “not all mikvaot have been supplied with all the means for disinfecting the mikvaot,” nor the requisite protective equipment for mikveh attendants.
According to the Religious Services Ministry, the water in mikvaot are changed every day by the mikveh attendants who also add chlorine and other disinfectants every time this is done.
The Health Ministry did not respond to questions from the Post regarding the frequency of inspections conducted by the ministry to examine hygiene standards in mikvaot.
Dvorah Iperman, director of the Department for Religious Structures in the Religious Services Ministry, said that even though “immersion today is not simple,” she averred that they were however safer than other public places at present, such as supermarkets because of the daily disinfection procedures undertaken in mikvehs.
“I agree it is scary, it’s not easy to go to a public place at the moment… But someone who goes to a mikveh can be calm because the site is disinfected and undergoes treatment,” she said.
Because of the lacuna in Health Ministry oversight of hygiene standards however, Adler Lazarovits and Segel-Katz ruled that since the coronavirus represents a life-threatening danger, and that women who carry the virus but are asymptomatic could spread the disease when they immerse, women should only immerse if they are certain the mikvaot do not pose a risk to their health.
“In the absence of information confirming adherence to the instructions at her local mikveh, a woman must not endanger herself and thereby, public health, in order to immerse in the mikveh,” wrote the authors.
They noted that immersion in natural water sources such as natural springs, the Sea of Galilee, and the sea is currently impossible since the Health Ministry has forbidden bathing in such places at present.
The authors said that “with great sorrow,” their decision meant that religious couples would have to indefinitely extend the period in which they cannot have sexual relations since, but said that couples worried about “emotional difficulty or the risk of a worsening of a psychological condition” as a result of such a situation should consult a rabbi or Jewish law authority.
Melamed argued however that the danger of infection in a mikveh was not sufficient to postpone immersion, and that a small amount of danger such as travelling by car was present in all walks of life.
“We do not know enough about the danger of coronavirus, and therefore when discussing matters of choice then one can be stringent [to avoid danger] but when talking about a great religious commandment such as this, one should rely on those responsible for public health,” ruled Melamed.
“Their instructions are used to operate mikvaot for women to immerse… According to their position, immersion is not dangerous.”
* A previous version of this article gave an erroneous figure for the number of cases of coronavirus thought to have been contracted in mikvehs.