Sisterhood Blog

Women With Braces Told To Stay Out of the Mikveh

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share

Just when I thought nothing more from the haredi world could shock me, after all that has transpired in the last year or so (women in a Jerusalem neighborhood being forced to walk on the opposite side of the street from men, rabbis issuing a new edict that women in Israel are supposed to ride only in the back of public buses), this recent took my breath away: A major decisor of Jewish law, Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, has ruled that women with braces on their teeth may not use the mikveh.

Now, to those who don’t observe the commandment to immerse in the mikveh, it may not seem like a big deal. Observant women immerse in the spiritually purifying ritual bath each month one week after their period has ended. But, as a liberal Jewish woman who has been observing the ritual — religiously, you might say, but with great ambivalence as well — it seems like a major development.

Not because I have braces, but because of the heartbreaking callousness and continued march toward radicalism at the expense of women’s wellbeing that this decision represents.

This article about the decision on Ynet explained it in some detail:

Braces on one’s teeth are considered a “partition” and therefore disqualify dipping in the ritual bath.

A few weeks ago, an individual approached Rabbi Elyashiv in order to seek advice on whether orthodontic braces are considered to create a partition between women dipping in the mikvah after their menstrual cycle and the water…

The ruling was made despite the fact that dipping in the mikvah is done with a closed mouth, and water would not touch the teeth in any case, braces or not. According to Elyashiv, the halacha also refers to partitions within the body, such that there is no significance to whether or not the teeth are actually being immersed in the water.

The mikvah immersion of a woman with braces would therefore be disqualified, and she would not be able to have sexual relations with her husband, or even to come in any physical contact with him.

No adult would get braces because they look good, and it’s not a step undertaken lightly. They’re left in for months, sometimes years. And while an adult may get braces for cosmetic reasons, sometimes it’s for medical needs. It is expensive — take it from a mother who currently spends too much time at the orthodontist with her children — and conventional braces can’t be removed and re-attached.

While the Ynet article reports that one orthodontist serving the haredi community is offering removable braces, this doesn’t change the issue underlying Rabbi Elyashiv’s decision: concern that mikveh immersion is done completely correctly, with more concern for the immersion than the woman immersing. What of all the women who have immersed over the years with braces on their teeth? Were their immersions invalid?

As it is, I know personally that mikveh observance can become a crucible of anxiety and there are women for whom it spurs an obsessive level of compunction.

When preparing to immerse a woman must bathe and clean herself from head to toe and make sure that there is no chatzitzah, or barrier that would prevent the water of the mikveh from touching every part of her body – like a Band-Aid or nail polish, for instance.

For some women, and some mikveh attendants, the need to be 110% certain that no remnant of nail polish is hiding under the edge of a cuticle, and that no particle of mascara remains in the corner of the eye, leads to an incredible level of scrutiny and repeated efforts to dig in and flush out the offending material. It can be difficult to tolerate, and is testament to my stubborn nature that I’ve been going back despite being attacked by a Q-tip wielding mikveh lady.

All this being said, preparation and mikveh immersion can be a beautiful ritual. For me the mikveh has been a place to reflect and to leave behind the spiritual and emotional “impurities” that accumulate.

After a violent miscarriage, it was a place to leave my grief, allowing me to return home hopeful again (a hope that was, thank God, quickly fulfilled).

Immersing often allows me to return home with a clearer (purer?) mind and heart.

Is this what Rabbi Elyashiv is concerned with? Surely not. He seems concerned with the technical integrity of the way the mitzvah, the obligation, is fulfilled.

Me? I am more interested in the spiritual integrity.

I am not generally inclined to anxiety about scrupulousness. But a few months ago after I got home, I noticed a Band-Aid on the back of my upper arm which neither me nor my mikveh attendant had noticed. Panic began to rise in my chest. Did this invalidate the immersion? Did I need to get in a cab, late at night and quite exhausted already, and go back to re-immerse? Could I be with my husband that night or would I be doing something wrong? Then my rational self stepped in. I removed the bandage, reminded myself that my intentions were correct, and went on with my life.

There are a few resources for the thinking modern Jewish woman interested in mikveh observance.

My favorite is the Web site of women who have been trained as yoatzot halacha, experts in the part of Jewish law pertinent to taharat hamishpacha, or “family purity.”

Their Web site explains and illuminates answers to many questions. But for those who need more individual advice, the yoatzot have a telephone hotline. I’m just not comfortable discussing my questions with the rabbi in charge of the mikveh I use. (I’d worry he was visualizing things a little too clearly.) So I’ve gone to the yoatzot hotline and it has been a blessed relief to discuss my questions with knowledgeable women.

Still, I find it a growing challenge to set aside what seems to me to be a growing orientation toward anxiety about scrupulousness rather than kavannah and joy.

Unfortunately I don’t live near a mikveh in a Conservative synagogue and the closest community mikveh is too far for me to reach at night. Would that we had a local version of Mayyim Hayyim, a mikveh and educational center in Newton, Mass., which focuses on celebration and connection.

Perhaps those of us who are serious liberal Jews in Brooklyn will one day muster the will (and money) to create our own sanctuary for the living waters of mikveh.

Until then, the near obsession with punctiliousness reflected in Rabbi Elyashiv’s braces decision is the impediment to connecting with what should be a beautiful experience in the mikveh available to all Jewish women.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, Niddah, Mikveh, Mikvah

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Lisa B Sat. Feb 20, 2010

The Mikveh is a wonderful ritual.

You're reading so much into this ruling though. It is just one more oppressive brick in the wall placed by a man overly obsessed with women and their bodies.

Shirley C. Munch Sat. Feb 20, 2010

No wonder so many young people are drifting away from Judaism. My granddaughter fortunately is being brought up to believe in the equality of women and to shun the haredi . . . at 14 she even wears her tallit and, with joy, will read the Torah on Shabbat. And she also wears braces.

Carrie Bornstein Sat. Feb 20, 2010

This is an unfortunate case of a particular opinion being represented as fact. Rabbis and other knowledgeable people have been discussing and debating Jewish law for thousands of years and Rabbi Elyashiv's opinion is just that - his opinion. For those that place their trust in him, this is their choice. However, Rabbi Elyashiv represents only a very small minority of the Jewish population. The fact remains that other, very well-respected and mainstream halachic authorities (including Rav Yehudah Henkin and the Nishmat site referenced above) make it very clear on their website that, "an item that is in place for a medical indication and is left there for a prolonged time period is not a chatzitzah." The rest of us need not get confused that Rabbi Elyashiv is articulating fact for all.

Motic Sun. Feb 21, 2010

I agree with Carrie Bornstein. Rav Elyashiv is not the first posek to deal with chatzitzah, and braces are nothing new. Although he is our generation's counterpart to Reb Moshe Feinstein or Dayan Abramsky, he is far from being the only posek and you should always consult your own moreh d'asra.

Menachem Petrushka Mon. Feb 22, 2010


Haredi readers of Ynet take any story that concerns halacha with a grain of salt. You should too.

They know that no one at Ynet is competent to report on Jewish Jurispridence.

The stories are meant to shock not to shed light on very complex and nuanced issues and rulings.

Secondly Yediot Achronot -Ynet's owner - reporting of Haredi life in general tends to salaciousness and at time outright falsehoods.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.