Israel deems women’s ritual baths essential, leaving some conflicted over virus risk

Source: Washington Post

By Ruth Eglash

EFRAT, West Bank — As covid-19 spread rapidly in the first weeks of March, Esther grew nervous. It was nearly time for her monthly visit to the ritual bath that many observant Jewish women use to purify themselves after every menstrual cycle, and she worried she might catch the virus at the very place meant for physical and spiritual cleansing.

“I have a disability and many underlying health issues,” said Esther, 43, an ultra-Orthodox mother of seven. “Deciding whether or not to go was very, very stressful.”

Even as Israel closed down its public sphere to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the government deemed that some 700 of these ritual baths, or mikvahs, were essential and permitted them to remain open along with supermarkets and pharmacies. When most of the country was completely locked down for the Passover holiday, the women’s mikvahs were not.

Without a dip in a mikvah, observant women are forbidden to have any physical contact with their husbands, leaving these wives with a dilemma: go to the mikvah and resume intimate relations or stay clear of the ritual bath to avoid any chance of infection.

“I deliberated for a long time about whether I should even go. I thought about waiting until after this crisis was over,” said Esther, a Jerusalem resident who spoke on the condition that her full name be withheld so she could discuss an intimate matter. “But the truth is, I am a woman and my husband a man; we need to be together. Without the mikvah, we would not be able to be intimate, and that would make this difficult time even more stressful and lonely.”

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