Dear ones in Yeshua,
Water Immersion: the Jewish Root
The month of August is a good month to immerse ourselves—in God first, in His Word, in His work, and, if appropriate, in water. Long before the word “baptism” existed, there was a Hebrew word connected with a Jewish ritual. That word is “tevilah” (pronounced teh-vee-LAH). A regular part of Jewish life was immersion in water as a part of a ritual of cleanliness, purification, and separation. Even today, observant Jewish people immerse themselves at special times of the year, i.e. before Shabbat and the Fall Feasts. Jewish women immerse themselves before marriage, and after their monthly cycle. Converts to Judaism must be immersed in water as well.
In the Tanakh, priests were required to be immersed. The Lord said to Moses, “And this is what you shall do to them to hallow them for ministering to Me as priests…And Aaron and his sons you shall bring to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and you shall wash them with water.” (Exodus 29:1; 4). This was a spiritual cleansing, indicating a change in status as well as a separation unto the Lord. An outward act was required to demonstrate an inward change. Immersion was the first step in the consecration of the kohanim (priests). On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the High Priest experienced multiple washings, or immersions, as he made atonement for the sins of Israel.
There were many laws of ritual purity and impurity that included immersion. God gave no specific reason for these commandments, known as Chukim (pronounced who-KEEM). They were laws to be obeyed by faith, simply because they were given by God.
One example of chukim is the commandment concerning contact with a dead body. “Whoever touches the body of anyone who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD. That person shall be cut off from Israel. He shall be unclean, because the water of purification was not sprinkled on him; his uncleanness is still on him.” (Numbers 19:13) Instructions continue in this chapter, culminating with total immersion in verse 19.
Cleansing from impurity was commanded for anyone having a leprous sore on their body (Leviticus 13), as well as for anyone who had contact with blood (Leviticus 15:19-33).
Immersion in Judaism can be summed up in three concepts: purification, separation, and change in status—with both physical and spiritual aspects. Aryeh Kaplan in Waters of Eden comments on immersion as follows, “The water is not washing away any filth. Rather, the mikveh is changing the individual’s spiritual status from that of tomeh (unclean) to that of tahor (clean).”
Change of status via immersion is seen clearly in the case of conversion to Judaism. Rabbi Kaplan mentions a Talmudic teaching that a convert to Judaism is like a newborn child. Emerging from the waters of immersion is very much like a process of rebirth. Does this remind you of John chapter 3 where Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, had a discussion with Yeshua about being “born again”? Yeshua remarked “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (verse five).
Mikveh: the Place
Tevilah is the action of immersion. Mikveh is the location where immersion takes place. Rabbi Kaplan spells mikveh with an “a.” Many spell it with an “e.” Either seems to be acceptable.
What exactly is a mikveh? The Hebrew word mikveh literally means a collection or gathering together, “a gathering or pool of water for the purpose of ritual cleansing.” The source of the word is from Genesis 1:10 where the Lord says, “…to the gathering (mikveh) of waters, He called seas.” In ancient times, the building of the mikveh was so important that it was said to take precedence over the construction of a synagogue. Hundreds of mikva’ot (plural of mikveh) have been found throughout Israel. The mikva’ot on the Southern Steps of the Temple Mount are very impressive. When they were discovered, the world understood how 3000 Jewish people could be immersed on Shavuot (Pentecost: see Acts 2:41) since archeologists have discovered there were many mikva’ot there.
There is a mikveh right near where we used to live in Plantation, Florida. It is part of a Day Spa run by an Israeli woman. This mikveh is used by observant Jewish women as part of their monthly cleansing and purification. Jewish brides go there before their wedding as well.
Mikva’ot in Jewish tradition must contain at least 40 Sa’ah or approximately 200 gallons of water. The preferred mikveh is a spring or flowing water—considered “Living Water.” The mikveh can also be the ocean, which is where we have our Messianic “miknics” (mikveh/picnics).
In ancient times, the person being immersed in the mikveh made special preparations by cutting his nails, undressing completely, and making a fresh profession of faith before designated “fathers.” He or she would totally immerse themselves in the water with a witness doing the officiating. The earliest drawings of Christian baptism, found on the walls of Roman catacombs, show John standing on the bank of the Jordan River while Yeshua immerses Himself.
A Jewish person would often immerse themselves three times, since the word “mikveh” occurs three times in the Torah (not a bad idea for Messianic Jews either!). In Yeshua’s day, the one being immersed was not touched by the required witness. (We follow this same pattern.) It was imperative that the entire body of the one submerging himself be in contact with the water of the mikveh. Total immersion, not sprinkling.
In rabbinic literature, the mikveh represents the womb. When an individual enters the mikveh, he is reentering the womb. When he emerges, he is as if born anew—with a completely new status. Many years ago, one of our Jewish Jewels partners had a revelation concerning emerging from the mikveh. “When you come up out of the water, it is the breaking of water a second time. The first being broken when you’re born into the world. When the water is broken that second time, we are not of the world any longer, because we have been born again into the Kingdom of God.”
The mikveh is also said to represent the grave, a place of non-living. The individual enters the water and dies to his old way of living. He emerges into newness of life, or as Rabbi Kaplan says, “he is resurrected with a new status.”
Rabbi Kaplan makes an interesting observation concerning the representation of the mikveh as both womb and grave: “…The Hebrew word “kever,” which usually means a “grave,” is also occasionally used for the womb. Both are nodes in the cycle of birth and death. When a person passes through one of the these nodes, he attains a totally new status.”
What began as a positive Jewish experience of ritual purification and consecration, became a terrifying, anti-Semitic ritual of persecution and death. Jewish history records forced baptisms for Jewish people beginning in the fourth century. Because of this, most Jewish people cringe at the mention of “baptism,” taken from the Greek word “baptizo”—to dip or immerse. Jewish parents will to their children, “Believe what you want to believe. Just don’t ever get ‘baptized!'” Why?
The history is horrific. In The Origins of the Inquisition, Professor B. Netanyahu quotes an eyewitness account: “Those who refused to accept baptism were immediately slain, and their corpses, stretched in the streets and the squares, offered a horrendous spectacle.” This was the result of forced mass conversions of Jewish people that accompanied the “Christian” conquest of Spain. Many of the Jews who converted did so only outwardly, continuing to practice Judaism in secret. But the Inquisition found them, and baptism was the final test. A typical consequence was: Be baptized or burn! No wonder Jewish people throughout the centuries are repulsed at the mention of believers being “baptized.”
Not long ago, we were delighted to attend the tevilah of a new Jewish believer at the ocean here in Fort Lauderdale. She was really disappointed that her mother refused to come and be with her on this very special day in her life. But her mother is Jewish, and deep in the Jewish soul there is still that revulsion…(That’s why we need to educate people about “real” Christianity). By the way, we invited this woman to our home for a Friday night dinner and chavurah (fellowship) and she really enjoyed it, asking lots of questions.
“In those days, Yeshua came from Natzeret in the Galilee and was immersed by John in the Jordan. Just as He was coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens ripping open and the Ruach as a dove coming down upon Him. And there came a voice from the heavens: ‘You are My Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased!'” (Mark 1:9-11 TLV)
What an extraordinary event. In a moment of time, under an open heaven, we find God the Father, Yeshua the Son, and the Rauch HaKodesh. This was the answer to the age-old cry of the prophets: “Oh, that You would rend the heavens! That You would come down!…” (Isaiah 64:1). The Jewish Messiah had appeared on the scene. In this first public act, He who had no need of repentance, made an identification with those who did. The One who is the Desire of Ages, received the anointing of the Spirit of God. Yeshua, our Eternal High Priest, fulfilled all righteousness by immersing Himself before beginning His earthly ministry.
The Father was introducing His Son to the world. The voice out of the heavens was known as the “bat kol” (pronounced baht kohl). Yeshua was being presented as the Son, the Messiah, of Psalm 2:7, “I will declare the decree: The LORD has said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You.'” God was well pleased with His “beloved Son,” who was experiencing a change of status at that holy moment—from a carpenter’s son to the Son of Man (a divine title).
Just as the Father was pleased with Yeshua’s obedience in being immersed, He is pleased when we, His children, follow Yeshua into the waters of the mikveh. For believers, this is an identification with Yeshua’s death, burial and resurrection. It is also a public statement of a private reality—that we have had a change of heart and a change of status. We have come out of the world and entered the Kingdom of God. We have a new Father—a King (Yeshua)—and a new Spirit living inside of us. We have decided to follow Yeshua. He was immersed; we must be immersed. This is the will of God!
Yeshua’s last words to His talmidim included instructions concerning tevilah: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, immersing them in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Ruach HaKodesh, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. And remember! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 TLV).
Believe—then be immersed. This is the biblical pattern. In Acts 2:38, we see the apostle Peter preaching to the Jewish pilgrims who were in Jerusalem celebrating Shavuot. His message included the command to be immersed: “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let each of you be immersed in the name of Messiah Yeshua for the removal of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh (TLV).'” He is not saying here that immersion saves us. No. The sacrificial death of Yeshua on the tree saves us. But immersion is a public confession that we have accepted His death on our behalf. His blood cleanses us from our sin. A great exchange has taken place—Messiah’s death for our life.
Tevilah is a beautiful picture of this supernatural transaction, “Or do you not know that all of us who were immersed into Messiah Yeshua were immersed into His death? Therefore we were buried together with Him through immersion into death—in order that just as Messiah was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4 TLV).
The Bridal Tevilah
We mentioned at the beginning of this letter that Jewish brides must go to the mikveh before their wedding. This ancient Jewish custom represents the separation from an old life to a new life—from life as a single woman to life as a married woman. It also symbolizes a change in status and authority. A woman comes out from under the authority of her father and under the authority of her husband.
Believers in Yeshua the Messiah are His “bride.” Rabbi Saul told the believers in Corinth, “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Messiah.” (2 Corinthians 11:2). As the bride of Messiah, it is incumbent upon us to go to the mikveh, to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to our Bridegroom/King. Then, deep in our spirit, we will sense the voice of the Father saying, “This is my beloved son (daughter) in whom I am well pleased!” We make ourselves available to the Ruach HaKodesh, to descend on us in a fresh, new way!
Jews Remain Jews!
Jamie wrote in The Ancient Jewish Wedding: “When Jewish believers go to the mikveh, they do not become Gentiles. Gentiles, on the other hand, do become spiritual Jews! The Jewish believers are coming under the authority of a Jewish Messiah. Non-Jews are actually making a public statement that they have become children of Abraham by faith in Yeshua. Both have experienced a circumcision of the heart. In a very real sense, the non-Jew has “converted” and the Jew has been “completed.”
Please pass the word along that it is kosher to go to the mikveh! And prepare yourself for Messiah’s return by following Yeshua in the Jewish practice of tevilah.
Love in our Bridegroom King,