It is customary for many to go to the mikvah on Erev Rosh Hashanah and Erev Yom Kippur to purify themselves in advance of these sacred days. Many Chasidic males have the custom to go to the mikvah not only twice a year but every morning or at least every Shabbat. What Talmudic basis might there be for males to go to the mikvah on a regular basis, and why do non-Chasidic males generally not go to the mikvah more often? Additionally, what relevance might the Talmudic evidence have for the contemporary practice of going to the mikvah as a preparation for the Yamim Noraim?
The relevant halakhic discussion concerns the status of ba’alei keri, men who have experienced an emission rendering them impure. Although according to the strict law such individuals are not barred from the study of Torah, Ezra decreed (Bava Kama 82b, Berakhot 20b) that they must first go the mikvah before studying Torah. An additional rabbinic decree forbade men from prayer before purifying themselves (see Rambam Hilchot Tefilla 4:4). This ruling, however, was later rescinded in accordance with the position of Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira, who declared (Berakhot 22a) that one may study Torah even as a ba’al keri because “words of Torah are not subject to impurity.”
Numerous medieval authorities, while accepting the view of Rabbi Yehuda Ben Beteira, dispute the scope of the takana’s retraction. Many (Behag Hilchot Tefilla 3, Responsa Maharam 221, Rambam Hilchot Keriat Shema 4:8 and Hilchot Tefilla 4:4, Tur O.C. 88 citing R. Yeshaya) maintain that the decree was fully abolished, both in regard to Torah study and various forms of prayer. Others (Rif Berakhot 13b, citing R. Hai; Talmidei R. Yonah ibid., s.v. ki; Ittur End of Hilchot Milla, citing R. Hai), however, posit that the takana was only eliminated in connection with Torah study, not tefilla. Tur (O.C. 88) and Beit Yosef (ad loc.) cite a range of views on this matter.
Interestingly, Rambam (ibid.), while ruling that the strict law no longer requires any tevila whatsoever, cites a near-universal custom among the Jewish communities of Babylonia and Spain that a ba’al keri is tovel prior to davening. Additionally, R. Yonah (ibid.), while ruling that as a matter of technical halakha there is no such requirement, nonetheless asserts that one should make every effort to be tovel, especially as one’s prayer is more readily heard after one going to the mikvah.
As a matter of practical halakha, Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 88:1) does not require tevila at all for ba’alei keri. Still, the Mishnah Berurah (ad loc. 2) recommends that one who chooses to do so is considered meritorious. He further indicates (no. 4) that there are some “men of deeds” who do immerse after witnessing an emission.
What, then, of contemporary practice? It is quite clear from the above sources that according to the strict letter of the law one need not go the mikvah on a regular basis. First, this entire area of halakha is limited to a man who experienced an emission and became a keri. Second, Shulchan Arukh and subsequent commentators rule that one is no longer required to be tovel. It is additionally noteworthy that among those earlier authorities who do require tevila for davening, some write that some sort of rinsing is sufficient to substitute for the immersion. Despite the clear halakha, one can begin to sense as to how Chasidic masters built on the decree of Ezra in viewing tevila as an ideal spiritual cleansing for daily prayer.
What about the possibility of a connection between takanat Ezra and tevila during the Yamim Noraim? Kol Bo (64), a classic medieval authority, suggests that the original repeal of Ezra’s decree was due to the difficulty involved in its implementation. Due to the higher level of spiritual preparation necessary for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the rabbis retained the decree in regard to these sacred days. (It should be noted that the practice of immersion on Erev Rosh Hashanah is of lesser standing than of Erev Yom Kippur. This subject, however, requires a separate discussion.)
Other authorities, however, offer alternative explanations for this minhag. A view cited by Rosh (Yoma 8:24) sees this practice as connected to the obligation to purify oneself prior to each holiday. Maharil (Hilchot Yom ha-Kippurim), a late medieval German rishon, raises the possibility that the tevila be viewed as a symbolic act of rebirth associated with repentance; indeed he explicitly compares the immersion to an act of conversion.
Kol Bo’s assertion that the tevila be viewed as an extension of Ezra’s decree carries a number of potential ramifications for the custom of immersion prior to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. First, according to his explanation, one might argue that only ba’alei keri must dip. This would exclude not only adult males who have not seen an emission, but also all females and male children. Second, the tevila would not necessarily need to take place on Erev Rosh Hashanah and Erev Yom Kippur proper; it would be presumably be sufficient so long as the immersion has taken place prior to these dates. Third, the Gemara (Berakhot 22a) suggests that to fulfill Ezra’s decree, in lieu of immersion in a mikvah one may pour a measurement of nine kav of water upon oneself in order to be purified. According to Kol Bo, this practice could potentially be utilized in connection with Erev Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as well. Finally, Rama (Darkhei Moshe 606:3) cites those who have the practice to dip three times and recite viduy each time one enters the water. This practice would be logical on the view that the immersion constitutes a symbolic rebirth, but, as Rama notes, would be unnecessary if the purpose of the tevilot is as a limited application of Ezra’s takana.
May our tevilot this Yamim Noraim season usher in a year of purity and spiritual elevation.