Understanding The Hebrew Mikveh vs Baptism

I was recently asked a few questions concerning the ancient Hebrew practice of water immersion (known as “mikveh” in the Hebrew language) and how it differs from traditional Christian baptism. So I felt I should address this for those unfamiliar with the ancient practice.

The Christian doctrine of water baptism that many have embraced and been taught all of their lives was not unique to that religion but, rather, originated in a Hebraic purification ceremony that had nothing to do with salvation. And, also, that Hebrew ceremony did not involve someone pushing another under water – the individuals immersed themselves.

First, we must not confuse the Hebrew “mikveh” and the Hebrew “mitzvah”…a common mistake due to the similarity of the two words.

Mikveh actually means “collection”, and refers to any “collection” or gathering of water for ritual purposes.  Whereas, Mitzvah means “a good deed”… especially one related to a scriptural commandment or religious duty.

A true Hebrew MIKVEH is accomplished by a person completely submersing oneself beneath water…a FULL BODY IMMERSION wherein the entire being goes below the water’s surface.

(Please note: a proper MIKVEH is NOT simply taking a bath! In fact, according to ancient tradition, whenever possible, the one seeking to mikveh should shower, bathe, or clean him/her PRIOR TO entering the Mikveh site whenever possible.)

A true Hebrew mikveh must be performed in a body of water large enough to allow a human body to fully submerge below the water’s surface. Further, the body of water must be fed by “mayim chayim” …which means “living water” in Hebrew. The body must be MOVING water, such as a river or deep Creek…or a lake that is fed water from an outside source such as a spring, etc.

In general, anything large enough for submersion that does NOT consist of STAGNANT water can constitute a Mikveh.

Now, unlike a traditional Christian “baptism”…a Hebrew Yisraelite would undergo multiple mikveh immersions throughout his/her lifetime for a wide variety of reasons. While I cannot possibly begin to list the entirety of reasons that Hebrews would immerse in mikveh in this brief article… I can cover a few examples that are relevant to our Faith walk. These include the following:

° Repentance (Hebrew: Teshuvah)

Hebrew Yisraelites would undergo a full water mikveh to publicly demonstrate their desire to perform “Teshuvah”…meaning to “turn from their sins and RETURN to Torah”.

This is the act that Yohanan the Immerser (aka John the Baptist) was performing with the Yisraelites at the Jordan River! He was immersing them into a Mikveh for the purpose of demonstrating their desire to perform Teshuvah and “turn from their Sin and return to Torah”! This explains biblical references to John performing a baptism of repentance with his cry of “Repent!”

“Yoḥanan came immersing in the wilderness and proclaiming an immersion of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Marqos (Mark) 1:4

Other reasons…

° A major change in One’s life…

A Hebrew Yisraelite would often undergo a water Mikveh when they were faced with major changes or events in their life/lifestyle. It was used as a symbolic act of ENDING one phase of life and ENTERING INTO the next… symbolizing a fresh, clean start!

This was one of SEVERAL reasons that Yahusha of Nazareth committed Mikveh at the Jordan River under John’s supervision. Obviously Yahusha was sinless, therefore He had no need for a Mikveh of “repentance”, Amein?!

So, Yahusha’s Jordan River Mikveh was a Hebrew traditional Mikveh indicating a MAJOR change or event was taking place in His life at that time. And what was that “change or event” that He felt necessitated a Mikveh of ‘new beginning’ you might ask?

Yahusha’s Jordan River Mikveh marked a milestone in Yahusha’s life…from that moment forward He would no longer be just “Yahusha the carpenter”, but rather “RABBONI Yahusha” as He began His ministry that very day and began calling His disciples to follow Him and His teachings! A MAJOR milestone in His life for sure…worthy of Mikveh to symbolize His change of vocation!

° Upon entering discipleship under a Rabbi/teacher…

Whenever a Hebrew Yisraelite willfully chose to enter into a life of discipleship under the teaching of a Rabbi, that new disciple would undergo a water Mikveh indicating both a major change of lifestyle, AND to make a PUBLIC DECLARATION to everyone that they had chosen to submit their spiritual training to their chosen Rabbi/teacher.

The Rabbi/disciple relationship was equated with that of a son and his father. This is why the traditional practice for entering discipleship was to undergo a public Mikveh with the understanding that the disciple was being Mikvehed (listen)..”INTO THE NAME OF (insert Rabbi’s name)!”

Does this sound familiar?…it should. This is the source wherein Christianity derived their doctrine of being “baptized INTO THE NAME of “Jesus”! It is rooted in ancient Hebrew Rabbinic tradition!! YEP…those SAME Rabbinic traditions most Christians denounce vehemently! Lol!

Failing to realize that THEIR very practice of baptizing “INTO THE NAME…” is nothing more than a Rabbinic tradition itself!!

In fact, The Great Commission of Matthew 28…with its command to “get forth and MAKE DISCIPLES ..

IMMERSING INTO THE NAME…” Is validation that the Hebrew practice of making disciples through water immersion/Mikveh “into the name…” is the accepted means of entering discipleship under MESSIAH YAHUSHA!

This practice of immersing new disciples “into the name of” a Rabbi is what Paul was upset about…the new disciples were mistakenly thinking that they were entering into discipleship under Peter, Apollos, Barnabas, etc…rather than understanding that they were entering into discipleship under RABBONI YAHUSHA…THE MESSIAH!!

“For I have been informed concerning you, my brothers, by those of the house of Chloe, that there are strifes among you. What I mean is this, that each one of you says, “I am of Sha’ul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Kĕpha,” or “I am of Messiah.” Has the Messiah been divided? Was Sha’ul impaled for you? Or were you immersed in the name of Sha’ul? I thank Elohim that I immersed not one of you except Crispus and Gaios, that no one should say that I immersed into my own name.”  Qorintiyim Aleph (1 Corinthians) 1:11-15

Moving on…there were MANY reasons for Mikveh immersing:

  • Ritual purity;
  • Major life change;
  • Entering discipleship;
  • Repentance;
  • Before sacrificing an animal;
  • Before entering the Tabernacle or Temple courtyard;
  • Women Mikveh on the 7th day after ending their menstrual cycle;
  • Before Shabbat;
  • Before a Set-Apart Day obeisance….

And the list could go on. As I stated earlier,. an observant Hebrew Yisraelite would undergo MANY water immersion Mikvot in their lifetime…it was NOT a singular, one time only event as practiced in modern Christianity.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MIKVEH AND BAPTISM:

In the first century, those who embraced the Hebrew Yahusha as the promised Hebrew Messiah to Yisra’El were called followers of the Way, practicing all the Hebrew rituals of Torah in synagogues as the only place to learn of the Set-Apart One of Yisra’El (Acts 9:2, Acts 24:14) before becoming corrupted by the man-made religion of “Christianity”.

However, the Torah does not say much about immersion and the centerpiece of that ritual, the mikveh, which appears to have become an essential part of Hebraic religious life by Temple times – the times the Hebrew Messiah was born into.

In the course of the instructions given to Moses regarding the ceremonial washings that would be required of the priesthood, YaHuWaH established the unchanging principle of cleansing – not to remove physical contamination but to establish ritual purity. From the record of scripture, water always played a key role in the life of the Yisraelites. Leviticus 12:5 speaks of washing for purification for women, and Leviticus 14:8-9 of purification for leprosy. Exodus 29:4-5 gives instruction for consecrating the priests.

A search on the word “bathe” will produce many verses, such as Leviticus 15:13. Immersion, however, is not mentioned; but the context of these commands is of the moving Mishkan/Tabernacle in the wilderness where immersion in a mikveh was presumably impractical. Upon entering the Mishkan, when the priests approached the altar of the tabernacle, they washed their hands and feet in water from a laver so that they would be ceremonially clean when they stood in the Set-Apart Place (Exodus 30:20-21).

As the post Babylonian-exiled Yisraelites began to consider the importance of YaHuWaH’s demands on the priests of the temple, they took upon themselves some of those priestly requirements to be pleasing to Him as well. The reasoning was that if YaHuWaH required the priests to be ceremonially clean through ablutions and immersions, then it would surely be proper for any worshiper to demonstrate the same purity of heart through the outward sign of immersion. It should be noted, however, that this was the reasoning of men – not something instigated by YaHuWaH Himself.

This reasoning formed the foundation for the mikveh tradition among the Yisraelites after they returned from Babylon to restore Jerusalem and the temple. Eventually, these ceremonial pools were constructed throughout the Land. The mikva’ot (pl. of mikveh) were designed to facilitate the t’vilah (ritual purification) by means of the immersion of worshipers in water – not for personal hygiene. Because the mikveh is for ceremonial purity, the water must touch every part of the body necessitating the worshiper be completely nude with no object interposed between the body and the water (Ronald L. Eisenberg, Jewish Traditions: A JPS Guide {Philadelphia, PA; Jewish Publication Society, 2004}, p. 556).

The mikva’ot were patterned after the pools in which the priests immersed themselves before going before the presence of YaHuWaH in the temple.

By the first century, the Hebrew people were not even permitted to enter the temple complex unless they had first immersed themselves in one of the mikva’ot of the immersion complex that had been constructed at the southern end of the temple (William James Hamblin and David Roth Seely, Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History {London, UK; Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 2007}, p.45). It was these mikva’ot that made it possible for 3,000 new believers in Yahusha as the Messiah of Yisra’El to be baptized on Yom Shavu’ot (Day of Pentecost) in a city that has no river, lake or significant stream. The one small stream, the Brook Kidron, between the city and the Mount of Olives, would have been inadequate to accommodate such a crowd. In Jerusalem today, you can see the remains of the mikva’ot outside the Temple, where ritual immersion was practiced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The mikveh remains of a temple mikveh.

All of this information throws some light on the ministry of Yochanan haMatbil (John the Immerser), who was perhaps the last of the Old Testament immersers (read Matthew 3, Mark 1, Luke 3 and John 1). Incidentally, the baptism of John was by full immersion as Mark 1 records Yahusha coming up out of the water.

In using the title Yochanan haMatbil, it should be noted that John did not put people under the water in the same manner as most do today; John was the one who caused people to immerse themselves in the ritual of the mikveh through his preaching (Acts 8:38).

A Hebrew person being immersed would wade into the water and then crouch down just below the surface. That way, no contact from the immerser prevented the water from reaching their whole body. The birth of Yochanan is recorded in Luke 1, where we note that his father was a priest ministering in the Temple.

So John was of the priestly line as well as being a child of special promise of YaHuWaH. It is believed that John should have been High Priest at the time when he commenced his ministry in the Jordan wilderness, but the priesthood had become corrupt and had been bought by men with wealth and influence.

Yahusha submitted to immersion by John, in spite of John’s reservations, “…to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). John was, as the legitimate high priest, initiating Yahusha who he had identified as “the Lamb of YaHuWaH” into the priesthood. He was not immersing him for repentance for sin. “He will turn many of the children of Yisra’El to YaHuWaH, their Elohim. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Eliyahu, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready for YaHuWaH a people prepared.” Luke 1:16-17

It was into this milieu that Yohanan haMatbil came, preaching the message of repentance and immersing those who did repent in the waters of the Jordan River. John did not somehow dream up the idea of immersion. He was simply following the culture of his Hebrew family. Yohanan purposefully positioned himself at the southern end of the Jordan River, just north of Qumran and began preaching the need for all of the people of Yisra’El to repent and be immersed in order to prepare for the breaking forth of the Kingdom of YaHuWaH. John 1:28 says, “These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan where John was baptizing.” The word Bethabara means “house of the ford”. This was the village situated near the junction of the Jordan River and Wadi el-Kharrar, just five miles north of the place where the Jordan emptied into the Salt Sea (the “Dead Sea” is a misnomer). This location at the ford of the Jordan was the exact place where the Yisraelites some fifteen centuries earlier had entered the “Promised Land”. When the newly repentant Hebrews were led by John into the Jordan River, they were walking back into the river at the same place where their ancestors had come into the Land. In this physical demonstration, it was as though they were momentarily abandoning their status as YaHuWaH’s Chosen People. Then, when they turned around, immersed in the waters of the river and returned to the Land, it was as though they had been “reborn” into the covenant of YaHuWaH. The Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah, is more accurately understood as shuv (“to turn around”), the Yisraelites’ physical act demonstrated graphically the repentance they were experiencing within.

Clearly, John’s immersing in the Jordan and his ministry in the wilderness evoked the exodus-conquest tradition of Yisra’El’s beginnings as a nation. It was a demonstration that was pregnant with meaning to all of the Hebrews who came to be immersed. What John had done was to take the mikveh experience out of the ceremonial immersion pools and returned it to the Jordan River for the purpose of making a graphic illustration. YaHuWaH wanted repentance of His People, the turning of the hearts of the people back to the Father (Malachi 4:6). Only those who manifested real change in their life demonstrated the true fruit of repentance and were deemed worthy of immersion as an outward sign of that inward determined change of direction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture of the Jordan river

The waters of the mikveh had to contain “living waters” either from a spring, a moving stream or, in some circumstances, from rainfall. Usually, a minimum of three witnesses were to observe the self-immersion to be certain that the worshiper had been completely submerged in the water. This witnessing factor was based on the Hebraic idea that every matter is established in the presence of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6, Matthew 18:16). Witnesses were so important that those who immersed themselves were often said to have been immersed “in the name” or a natural bend in the Jordan River “under the authority of” the witness(es). Thus, those being immersed along the Jordan were said to have been “immersed unto John” (Acts 19:3) just as the Yisraelites had been “immersed unto Moses” at the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:2). Because the actual immersion ritual was performed in the nude, there was segregation between women serving as witnesses to women and men to men so a natural bend in the river would have served as a sufficient partition between the two. Since immersion in water would inevitably eventuate in death if one were to remain for too long under the surface, those who immersed themselves in the mikveh came to be viewed as having a “death, burial and resurrection” upon their emergence (Yitzhak Buxbaum, Jewish Spiritual Practices {Northvale, NJ; Jason Aronson, Inc., 1994}, p.569). Additionally, the immersion experience was understood as a rebirth process (Thomas Macy Finn, From Death to Rebirth: Ritual and Conversion in Antiquity {Mahwah, NJ; Paulist Press, 1997} p.132).

Because the waters of the mikveh were believed to symbolize the waters of the womb, those who emerged from those waters after having been immersed were considered to have been “reborn” or “Born Again”. This concept was extended to various areas of life, including the monthly renewal that takes place in the bodies of women when they are re-equipped with the potential for generating new life. The immersion of women after menses was a rebirth process and it was also part of the tumah and taharah – death and resurrection process; a transition from being forbidden to participate in set-apart things concerning the temple sacrifices into being completely free to engage in them. Tumah means “to become impure”. When applied to women it refers to the state of ritual impurity that is associated with menses. It never implied that any physical impurity was associated with menses. It is also thought to mean “entombed” – meaning that a person is blocked or unable to participate in set-apart things. Taharah means “to be transparent or clean”. It is purification, freedom from ritual impurity. Immersion produced a change of status – from “forbidden” to “permitted” in the case of the removal of ritual impurity in the lives of the Yisraelites.

In the case of the transformative rite of proselyte immersion, it also represented a forensic change of status in which a Gentile (Ger – Foreigner, Alien) actually became a Hebrew (Ezrach – Native Born). What one was after immersion was different from what he had been prior to immersion. For this reason, the practice was also used in the consecration of priests, the coronation of kings and the elevation of individuals to other offices – but never was immersion considered a means of salvation. Not then, not now.

Acts 2:38 so closely ties repentance and immersion because it is contextually covenantal language and covenant concept.  It is not stating that you must be baptized in order to be saved.  It is saying that baptism is the complete and total covenantal identification with Yahusha in His death, burial, and resurrection.  It is not the covenant representation (immersion) of what Yahusha did that rescues us but the reality of His sacrifice which we receive by faith (Rom. 5:1; Gal. 3:8).

Is baptism necessary for salvation? No, it isn’t. Acts 2:38 does not contain the issue of faith. It is a covenant declaration.

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rYm Covenant

To the Torah and to the witness! If they do not speak according to this Word, it is because they have no daybreak [light]. Yeshayahu (Isaiah) 8:20

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