Lather, rinse and repeat. And so it says on the back of every shampoo bottle. This is a bath ritual. But we want to talk about ritual baths. Unlike taking a bath or a shower at the end of a hot, sweaty day, getting clean is not the purpose of a ritual bath. In fact, you should be clean before you even hit the water.
For thousands of years, people have immersed themselves in water for spiritual renewal, purification and revitalization of the soul. The Aztecs communed with their gods during a full moon bath; the Egyptians bathed to purify themselves before daily prayers; and after coronation, Cambodian kings take a ritual bath in mountain water to wash away their impurities.
In their book Spiritual Bathing, authors Rosita Arvigo and Nadine Epstein write that water is “one of the most universal spiritual concepts on our planet. Buried somewhere in the genesis of every culture is the idea that water is divine, life-giving, healing, cleansing and renewing.”
Being clean is a sign of purity or goodness. The expression “to come clean” means to admit to something or tell the truth — as in “When his mom opened the warning notice from school, Billy was forced to come clean and tell her that he had never handed in the math homework.”
In a sermon in 1778, John Wesley coined the saying “cleanliness is next to godliness.” In preparation for many kinds of ritual baths, cleaning the body first, before ever entering the water, is necessary and seen as an important step in mentally preparing for immersion.
Judaism’s ritual bath is the mikveh. (The plural of this Hebrew word is mikvaot.) A mikveh is usually located in a synagogue or other Jewish institution and is filled with naturally flowing water, rainwater or water from a spring or stream. We had an opportunity to tour a brand-new mikveh right in our neighborhood. It looked like a small, deep swimming pool, with beautiful blue and white tiles. The room was spa-like, with soft lights and the rainwater collection system was impressive.
Evidence of mikvaot have been found in archaeological ruins dating back thousands of years. There was a mikveh unearthed on the desert mountaintop fortress of Masada and another one adjacent to the remnants of the walls of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Brides sometimes visit the mikveh before their wedding day. Although both of us married Jewish guys in traditional Jewish ceremonies, neither of us went to the mikveh. No one ever suggested that along with signing the ketubah, reciting the Sheva Brachot and ordering 200 kipot, a visit to the mikveh was in order.
Today, a very religious married Jewish woman immerses herself in the mikveh if she observes the rituals of taharat ha-mishpachah (the Jewish laws covering sexual relations). After her menstrual period has been over for seven days, she must use the mikveh to purify herself before resuming sexual relations with her husband
Converts to Judaism are immersed in a mikveh as part of their conversion ceremony to signify their rebirth as Jewish persons. Some modern Jews are embracing the tradition of the mikveh, undergoing immersion to mark a life-changing event, such as a divorce or completion of chemotherapy.
We’re still curious about what immersion in the mikveh would entail, but we haven’t found the right occasion yet. We’re long past blushing brides and headed toward hot flashes — we’ll let you know what happens when we come up with some reason to dare to dip.
Islamic ritual washing is known by the Arabic term ghusl. It is required of both men and women in many instances, including after sexual intercourse, completion of the menstrual cycle, and before formally converting to Islam. The ritual bath involves carefully washing the entire body, including the hair, scalp and between the toes. Rain, well or spring water is poured freely over all parts of the body, and it’s recommended that one gargle as well.
In Christianity, baptism – symbolized by pouring water on the head or immersing someone in water – is a sacrament signifying admission to the church. In the New Testament, it tells that Jesus was baptized by John, who immersed him in the Jordan River.
For Hindus, the river Ganges is sacred; bathing in it on certain occasions is said to forgive sins. It is believed that drinking water from the Ganges with one’s last breath will take the soul to heaven.
Apparently, even Pagans believe in the powers of the ritual bath. From the Pagan Library, comes this advice on setting up a ritual bath in one’s home:
“The bath water should be infused with salts, herbs oils and colors that are harmonious. If you have a shrine set up in your bathroom there should be a Goddess and God candle present. Have a tape recorder with meditation music in the bathroom.” The Pagan goddess advisor cautions spiritual seekers to keep the tape recorder far away from any water and “DO NOT TOUCH IT WHILE YOU ARE STILL WET!”
Because nothing wrecks a spiritual rebirth like electrocution.