There is an expression in Hebrew: “Al Rosh Haganav Boer Hakova” – on the burglar’s head is a burning hat, translated from Yiddish אויפן גנב’ס קאפפ ברענט דאס היטל, the guilt of the burglar shows on his face. This is the way I feel each time my mikveh night falls out on Shabbat evening. I walk the streets alone, not in the direction of my shul and I am sure that it is written all over my face that my destination is the mikveh! How embarrassing?! If I’m holding a bag I am sure that everybody has X-Ray vision and can spot my towel inside, and if I’m not holding anything I am sure that it looks even more suspicious. As the passers-by wish me “Shabbat Shalom” I prepare explanations, excuses, of where I am going…. “To visit a friend who is in town”, “I’ve run out of chrain for the fish”, “Going to visit a relative who isn’t feeling well”. I’m aware that many women feel the same. Perhaps these feelings cause some women to postpone their Friday night tevilla(immersion)?
Often extra organizing is required when going to the mikveh on Friday night, but it is not necessarily more difficult than a regular week night; on a Friday night our children are usually at home and awake, and all preparations for the tevilla must be done before candle lighting. Yet on the other hand, on a Friday night tevilla we are already prepared, bathed, showered, elegantly dressed, not busy with daily routine or on our mobile phones. In fact, there may even be an added ambiance of Shabbat Kodesh.
How are we supposed to deal with going to the mikveh when all the kids are home and awake, when we have house guests for Shabbat, when our dinner guests arrive early, when we are at our parents-in-law for Shabbat or away for a family event in a remote place?! Small practical solutions can help overcome feelings of stress:
Most preparations, such as bathing, can be done earlier on Friday in a leisurely fashion, though brushing our teeth and combing our hair needs to be done just before Shabbat. Interestingly, if a woman has forgotten to cut her nails she need only clean them well, since the Rama believes that nails are not considered a chatzitza (Taz, 198, 21). We must be careful that our hair doesn’t become knotty, so after combing it we could tie it or pull it back. For those of us who are makpid to always begin Shabbat with make-up, tevilla on Shabbat becomes very frustrating. However, one should know that if it is important to the tovelet, leniencies can be found even for tevilla with make-up (Taharat HaBayit, part 3 page 29), as with nail polish (Harav Mashash, Responsa Tevuot Shemesh, Yoreh Deah, 53).
Sometimes difficulties arise when the mikveh is positioned far from our home. There are cases where a woman is allowed to go to the mikveh before Shabbat begins, and return home before sunset. However, a consultation with a rabbi is necessary and the husband and wife must be careful not to meet before dark (tzet hakochavim). Alternately, our husbands can choose to miss shul and stay home with the kids, or we can confide in a friend or family member to help us make arrangements (maybe even to be our alibi).
On Friday nights, it is customary to wet your whole body (like we normally have a shower before entering the mikveh) with one extra dip in the mikveh. This is done by simply immersing all the way under the water before beginning the actual tevilla with a bracha (blessing). Concluding the tevilla, a woman must be careful not to squeeze out her hair (Ben Ish Chai, Shana Shniya, Pekudei, part 8).
Regarding the timing of immersion, some Sefaradim have the custom to go into the mikveh at dusk (bein hashemashot) on Friday night (Taharat HaBayit, part 2, page 452), whereas most women wait until nightfall (tzet hakochavim) to immerse.
A woman is allowed to delay her tevilla until Friday night if her husband is overseas and only returning Friday morning (Rama, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 197, 2), despite the halakhic complications of a Friday night tevilla. Actually, the Meharya (Meharya Responsa, Part 2, Section 217) permits a shopkeeper to push off her tevilla until Friday night on a regular basis in order to avoid her customers knowing that she is going to the mikveh when she closes her shop early on a weekday.
If a woman chooses to go to the mikveh after the Friday night meal, for example, when bringing Shabbat in early in the summertime, she should take care not to eat things that easily get stuck between her teeth (Darkei Tahara page 170). If the woman does eat before the tevilla she should be careful to brush her teeth before the mikveh, in the way she usually brushes on a regular Shabbat (if she uses liquid toothpaste etc.).
I often try to take the Balanit into account on Friday nights; she too has a family waiting at home for the Shabbat meal. Furthermore when inquiring before Shabbat when the mikveh is open Friday evenings (in some small communities there are time slots for each woman who calls) remember to also inquire regarding the payment for the mikveh.
As I walk self consciously to the mikveh on Friday night and I am worried that people may guess that I am on my way to the mikveh (because I feel like my hat is on fire) I try and remind myself that I am proudly keeping an important mitzvah which is special and unique to women!