Mikveh on Shabbat Night

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

15 Sivan: Bach on Going to Mikveh Early on Friday Night/Shabbat

It is an occasional pleasure to find a responsum from relatively early in our history (with a date on it, so it can be included in this collection). This time, we get to learn from R. Yoel Sirkis, known as Bach, the acronym of Bayit Chadash, the name of his most famous work, his commentary on Tur. In his responsa, Shu”t HaChadashot 40 is dated 15 Sivan 5387 (1627).

The question arose about a mikveh that was outside a city. The city, for safety reasons, closed its gates before nightfall. Women could not use the mikveh on the evening after the seventh day on which they had not seen any blood, they had to wait for daytime on the eighth day.  

The quandary arose when that was a Friday, and the community accepted Shabbat early (we generally assume that that obligates the entire community, but see below). One rabbi had argued that since this isn’t a tevillah bizmanah, an immersion at its right time, the women should not be allowed to immerse on Shabbat, and should have to wait until Sunday.

Would Bach agree?

Leniencies of Immersion

He would not, and he evinces some irritation with this rabbi, whom he judges to have erred about an obvious halachah. While Rabbenu Tam held that only immersion at its right time is a mitzvah, that doesn’t mean he prohibits it for such a woman on Shabbat. The source text (which Bach references, but doesn’t cite) is Tosafot Niddah 67b; there, Rabbenu Meshullam permitted a woman to go to mikveh on the eighth day, even if it is Shabbat, if she could not go the night before for fear of thieves (being mugged, etc.).

Rabbenu Tam disagreed (and his view was accepted as halachically authoritative), because it combines two leniencies. It allows a woman to separate her preparations for mikveh from her immersion. Before going to mikveh, a woman must make sure there are no barriers on her person between the water and her body. Part of that is washing her hair thoroughly, combing through it to make sure there are no tangles.

That’s not permitted on Shabbat, since she may pull out some hair while doing so. The woman who immerses on Shabbat day, then, will have prepared on Friday and immersed the next day. Halachah does allow that in other unavoidable situations (such as where her time to go to mikveh is a Motzaei Shabbat which is also a holiday).

Going to mikveh during the day is another leniency. Ordinarily, we worry about serach bitah, that if her daughter sees her mother go to mikveh during the day, she will think it was the seventh day, and learn the incorrect lesson that it is permissible to go to mikveh on the seventh day and then wait for nightfall for her status to change. When we allow this leniency, we assume that we will find some other way to teach the daughter the proper way of handling it.

It’s the Double Leniency That’s the Problem

Bach points out that Rabbenu Tam didn’t object to either leniency, he objected to using both in one situation. For the city which closes its gates before nightfall, that seems to mean going to mikveh on Friday would not bother him, since that’s only one leniency, a daytime immersion.

Rabbenu Tam’s point about whether immersion was a mitzvah was said to explain his view that if a woman’s husband was out of town, she need not rush to immerse, and should not use either of these leniencies. If her husband’s not in town, in fact, Rabbenu Tam would say she should not immerse on Shabbat.

Mordechai says that explicitly in his name, as Bach discusses a little later. Other authorities held she should go to mikveh on Shabbat in that situation and even on Yom Kippur (when couples may not engage in marital relations), because they held that immersion at its right time was an independent value, a mitzvah of its own.

That’s where Rabbenu Tam disagreed. Where her husband is in town, facilitating resumption of married life (part of piryah ve-rivyah, having children) is enough of a mitzvah that he, too, would allow immersing during the day on Shabbat, if she prepared immediately before.

Beit Yosef cited these views in Yoreh Deah, expressed surprise at the Tur for not citing it, and quoted it that way in Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 199;7), that the problem is the two leniencies, implying that either leniency would be acceptable to Rabbenu Tam.

Shabbat Shouldn’t Be Treated Lightly

A ruling of Mahari Weil’s might mislead us as well. Where a woman had failed to immerse as soon as she could, and her husband was now returning from a trip, Mahari Weil said Rabbenu Tam would prohibit her from immersing on Friday night. Bach argues that here, too, it’s because it’s Shabbat and she was negligent in waiting.

While this all sounds like he’s going to say she cannot immerse on Friday when the community has accepted Shabbat, he then backtracks, says that even if Rabbenu Tam did prohibit immersion on Shabbat, we should reread all the sources cited before (he throws in “and that’s how it seems to me in truth” about the reading of the Mordechai, which I find a little odd, since then why did he spend all that time arguing the first way? Why not wait until this point and write “and even though Mordechai shows that Rabbenu Tam held…”?), it doesn’t matter.

Because we don’t follow Rabbenu Tam in practice! That’s an important reminder that the views of even giants don’t always become accepted, and common Jewish practice is that women go to mikveh on Friday night if their husbands are present. In our case, then, where the gates close before dark, so that day eight is the first time she can go, she can immerse on Shabbat.

When Does Shabbat Start and Do We Care?

The rabbi had made one more mistake, because Bach does not agree that the community’s acceptance obligates her to treat that time as Shabbat. If the city closes the gates before it’s dark, it means she’s going to mikveh long before tosefet Shabbat is a possibility, since Orach Chayyim 261 tells us that we don’t start making even early Shabbat before the beginning of sheki’ah (when sunset starts in halachah is a topic of its own).

That’s because, as Terumat HaDeshen 4 said, the community’s acceptance that early (by saying Barchu to start the evening prayer) cannot obligate her when she’s not there.  In fact, it’s so early that if she wanted to daven Mincha after that, she could, because they cannot impose Shabbat on the community.  Since she’s not immersing on Shabbat, the whole question doesn’t arise.

Bach also thinks having her go earlier, before the community davens Ma’ariv, would mean she was going to mikveh in really broad daylight, which halachah fears will give her daughter the misimpression that immersion can also be on the seventh day. The later she goes, then, the better.

This last part, he adds, was to address this rabbi’s claims. Bach himself thinks she can go to mikveh even if she was in shul that night, even if she participated in Barchu that declared the day Shabbat. Because she’s allowed to go to mikveh on Shabbat, in Bach’s view, because she could not do so beforehand (note that it seems a meaningful possibility, to Bach, that a woman going to mikveh that night would also go to shul for Barchu!).

Misunderstanding a stringency of Rabbenu Tam’s—and of whether we follow that stringency even as far as it went—led a rabbi to cause problems for the women of that city, in Bach’s view. This responsum was his way of clearing the air, and helping those women (and their husbands).

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