Three Cheers for the Balanit

“Can I get you a glass of water?”

The stranger’s question touched me but I just shook my head. I needed more than a glass of water, much more, like forty seah. I needed a mikveh!

Three weeks earlier I’d fallen, broken some little bones in my foot, and was fitted with a plaster walking cast up to my knee. The time to have that cast removed had arrived, just a week after my night to tovel in the mikveh. How eager I was to have my leg free from any interference between me and the waters of purity.

To my dismay, though, the orthopedic doctor had a surprise for me. He would be removing my cast as promised but it would be replaced with an elastic bandage that I couldn’t remove for two weeks, not even to take a bath.

“Can we wait an hour for you to put the bandage on?” my husband asked.

The doctor acquiesced with stern instructions not to put any weight on my foot. I was left sitting in my wheelchair opposite the elevators in the Jerusalem medical building while my husband took off to the office of the Rabbinate several blocks away. He waited in line to see the rabbi on call only to be told that although there was no problem, given the fact that my night to tovel had passed, for me to use the mikveh during the day, most of the mikvehs in the area had been drained for cleaning. As for the one which still had water in it, the balanit was nowhere to be found.

My husband finally returned to me with the news that the only mikveh he’d found available and usable was our local mikveh. Being that our home was an hour drive away and another hour drive back and the doctor would be leaving soon I knew that wasn’t a solution. Defeated I let my leg be bandaged. Once home, though, I had an idea.

Two of my closest friends were a balanit and a nurse. I presented my problem and they came through with flying covers. The balanit agreed to open the mikveh early and the nurse was willing to come with us, remove the bandage and rewrap my foot once I had hopped out of the mikveh.

This happened twenty-five years ago and I still remember the gratitude I felt to my friends. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Nurses are generally givers and no one becomes a mikveh lady for the money or the cushy hours. They like to help others. Therefore mikveh users need to beware of taking advantage of the balanit’s good heart.

It’s important to note that the mikveh ladies I spoke to stressed most mikveh users are not only polite and considerate, they’re also full of gratitude to the mikveh lady for helping them perform their mitzvah. Sadly, there are the difficult mikveh users who, even though they’re the exception, leave a lasting impression.

Women with OCD seem to take forever with their mikveh preparations and invariably must ask a rabbi at least one question. Women with fear of water need extra time and encouragement to actually immerse themselves. Battered wives come to the mikveh with scores of complications. Obviously the balanit knows she needs to be sensitive to their special needs.

Much harder to deal with is the inconsiderate user, especially the chronic latecomer. Sometimes she makes it to the mikveh in time, five minutes before the mikveh is closing, and comes unprepared and needs an hour to remove make-up, bathe, cut her nails, untangle her hair, and so forth. Some mikvehs charge late fees. Many don’t but even when they do the balanit doesn’t see the money. She gets to work an extra hour for free making it quite a challenge to treat the latecomer kindly.

There are those who don’t even try to come on time. They expect the balanit to work around their needs, not the other way around. One woman even told the mikveh lady: You should be happy I’m using the mikveh and not make it more difficult for me.  

Often there are complications getting to the mikveh on time. Women who work night shifts, teachers who must be at parent-teacher conferences, family celebrations are just a few of the difficulties. One balanit told me she was more than willing to make an extra effort as long as the mikveh user took part of the responsibility for solving the problem.

Another mikveh lady wondered why someone who can’t get to the mikveh before midnight doesn’t just wait until the following night. She admitted there can be all sorts of answers to her question: fertility matters, husband on short military leave, even more complications the following night.

Somehow it seems most complications occur on Friday night, the night that the balanit wants nothing more than to get home to her own Shabbat table. Many times there’s a shailah and, of course, she can’t just telephone the Rav. Instead she must go to the synagogue, wait for services to end, and ask someone to bring the rabbi out so he can answer the question. Meanwhile her family waits patiently. Sometimes their patience is rewarded with the cake or salad the mikveh user has given the mikveh lady. It was her excuse for getting out of the house.

Her excuse becomes the mikveh lady’s gift. It’s nice to feel appreciated and not taken for granted. Probably the biggest gift is when the balanit learns that the woman who’s cried every month about not being pregnant has had a healthy baby or the one who discovered a lump in her breast while at the mikveh has finished her cancer treatments successfully.

The balanit is a human being with occasional bad days, sleepless nights, aggravating kids, financial worries, and more. Still, she usually manages to pull herself together to smile and help mikveh users no matter how challenging those users are. Now, with the corona crisis she has to enforce all the safeguards and instructions and clean the equipment and all areas of the mikveh much more than usual. Even more complicated is the fact she needs to trust that all of the women coming to tovel are indeed healthy and not required to be in quarantine. That’s a lot of trust and her trust should be appreciated.

Mikveh users must understand the laws of what constitutes a separation that can prevent toveling. Just as important, they need to know the laws of derech eretz.  It’s incumbent on them to treat the mikveh lady properly. It can only enhance their mitzvah.

“Ester Katz Silvers is a free-lance writer living in Shilo, Israel. Her writing has appeared in Binah,, The Heart of Israel, The Jewish Press, and in her novel, Growing With My Cousins, which is available at Jewish bookstores and on-line. ”