Basket of requisites for ritual bathing (miqveh) and the hammam

Oran, early 20th century

Wicker, cotton, lace, leather, metal, 32 × 46 × 32 cm

Gift of Henriette Azen in memory of her mother, Reine Teboul Bibas, descendant of seventeen generations of dayyanim

Basket of requisites for ritual bathing (miqveh) and the hammam, Oran, early 20th century

Basket of requisites for ritual bathing (miqveh) and the hammam, Oran, early 20th century

The ritual bath (miqveh or “collection of water”) is a vital institution of community life. The halakha, the body of laws regulating Jewish religious life, considers it so important that it must be built even before a synagogue. Mentioned in the Pentateuch as the only means of purifying objects and people, its construction must comply with very precise rules regarding its volume, the origin of the water and the materials used. Ritual purification requires complete immersion. The bath therefore has to contain at least forty seah (approximately 760 litres) of “living water” collected from a natural source (spring, sea, stream or rainwater). Since ritual immersion is not an act of personal hygiene, it is always preceded by washing. It is obligatory for married women, each month after menstruation, after their first purification just before marriage. It is also imposed on converts to Judaism as a sign if rebirth, and by certain pious men before shabbat and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It is sometimes accompanied by local customs.

In Mediterranean communities, as was customary for Algerian Jews, the future bride’s visit to the miqveh before the marriage ceremony was a public celebration. She was accompanied by her future mother-in-law, women of the family and friends. The married women told her the behaviour demanded of her in marriage. It was also an opportunity for the bride-to-be to present her trousseau to her future mother-in-law: garments, household linen embroidered by her, and objects required for ritual bathing and the hammam such as embroidered towels, a soap and perfume box, a tassa (recipient for pouring water) and copper accessories (trays, pestles). Immersion was followed by the application of henna, a local custom also practiced by Muslims. The ceremony ended with a tasting of patisseries whose sweetness augured well for the marriage’s future.

This public celebration fell into disuse but is being revived in France in a modernised form amongst Jews of North African descendancy, as a rite of passage and female conviviality.

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