While the proscription of bathing between immersion and sex is not, to my knowledge, debated; sleeping with a knife under the pillow is contested. I learned about this protective ritual custom before I started graduate school when my husband started traveling 100% for work, meaning the situation of me going to the mikvah the night before he was due home (anytime between 1am and 11am the next morning) became a routine part of our lives for over 5 years. Now that his work is locally based, its my travel to academic conferences that brings this dynamic back occasionally. When we were first starting this pattern, I was advised to place a knife under my pillow by the younger of two mikvah attendants at the Hasidic mikvah I went to during this time; but the older attendant poo-pooed this practice as superstitious.
The younger mikvah attendant explained that mikvah immersion places an individual in a “higher spiritual elevation” that renders women especially “spiritually vulnerable”. It doesn’t have to be a sharp or dangerous knife, a butter knife will do. The cold, metal blade is necessary to provide protection from malevolent spiritual forces.
The older attendant stated this is an outdated custom based on the need for freshly immersed women to protect themselves from men who might want to rape them because their elevated status conferred by immersion conveys a measure spiritual benefit to her post-immersion male sexual partner. According to this view, the practical need for self-defense is no longer relevant as the odds of post-mikvah intruder rape are nonexistent.
Scholarly Analysis A: Both of these explanations reflect an elevated spiritual status resulting from immersion which can be read a liminal state. Thus post-mikvah sex can be understood as spiritually grounding or as reintegration from this liminal state.
Scholarly Analysis B: What is this “spiritual vulnerability? Apparently, in the early modern period in Europe and the Mediterranean, there was a long, sustained outbreak of spirit possession following the Iberian Expulsions and only wrapping up in the early twentieth century. A comprehensive history of this period can be read in, Jeffery Howard Chajes’s book Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003). However, his work is part of a larger conversation among scholars. Through the helpful networking of my advisor, Dr. Joel Gereboff, it appears that pasaks (rulings or codified recommendations, usually responding to specific varieties of cases that are not addressed by existing halakhah) regarding a variety of spiritual protection methods were issued at this time. Even today, I have been advised by a rabbi on alternative or combination practices of sleeping with “one of my husband’s garments” and/or to co-sleep with a small child.
Scholarly Analysis C: Gender patterns in these protective rituals:
It is easy today to jump to conclusions that sexism is somehow involved in these protection rituals and this would be both inaccurate and also accurate but not in the way that those who think of this criticism first would expect.
These protective ritual practices predate -by hundreds of years- the 20th century feminization and eroticization of mikvah. Both the explosion of spirit possession and pasaks about how to ward off these spiritual invasions, occurred when mikvah was regularly used by both men and women. This raises the question: Were men or those in the halakhic category of the androgyne also recommended to follow spiritual protective practices post-immersion also? If so, for how long? -and what post-immersion practices would have “grounded” or sealed the immerser into the less vulnerable spiritual state of everyday human life? Do we only note the recommendations for women because that is all we are looking for or was there really a strong gendered dimension to the spirit possessions
I have heard through the mikvah rumor-mill without direct substantiation or indirect scholarship – that all Moroccan Jews always sleep with knives under their pillows for reasons of spiritual vulnerability during sleep. If this is true, then this points to some gender-neutrality to these spiritual protection practices. If you are a Moroccan Jew, I would love to hear from you in the comments! If you are from another branch of the World Jewish community that also engages spiritual protective practices, I would love to hear from you too. Just remember, anything posted in this blog-space could be quoted in my research.
These questions and their answers when someone find them can also be fruitfully placed within the context of scholarship on spiritual possession in other religio-cultures. In scholarship on spiritual possession as it occurs cross-culturally today, women, minorities, and marginalized individuals such as LGT members of the community are the most common recipients of spirit possession.
Does this suggest that as women and LGBT individuals are better accommodated and given more voice and power within their communities, will spiritually protective practices become less relevant? Or will new needs for personal spiritual protection arise?
Pre-grad school experience: Before I knew about this protective ritual, I had started observing myself feeling extremely irritable and acting and speaking snarkily with my husband once he returned home, which did not lend itself to “resuming relations”. Once I learned of this ritual, I decided it couldn’t hurt to try it and see what if anything happened. The snarkiness cleared up and I genuinely felt welcoming and happy to have my husband home. I have kept this practice up and on the occasions that I have forgotten, I have experienced a hard to shake irritable mood the next day. Its serious enough that I keep a bent table knife in the drawer of my bedside table to help me remember.
Scholarly reflection on my pre-academic self: Had I been experiencing a 21st century “spirit possession”? Neither pop-films, sensational “real-life” tv dramas of spirit possession, nor academic study of spirit possession in any time period or culture would classify an irritable, snarky wife as possessed by a spirit. This seems more the domain of marital therapists. Did were the irritable moods merited in some way justified by the dynamics of our relationship while we were making this transition to my husband’s new and fulfilling work-life? Did embracing this custom induce me to glossing over these issues or resolving them? If there anyway to study such impacts of ritual? I think not so much.
On the one hand, the fact that I had these irritable experiences prior to knowing about this dynamic of mikvah custom argues against it being a placebo effect produced by the “superstition” of mikvah. However, that this pattern changed after learned of it, can be spun as a “placebo effect”. That this pattern returned when I forgot to put the knife under my pillow, also argues for a sort of reverse placebo effect, what I have recently heard called the “nocebo” effect. At this time in my academic career, I believe the possibilities of placebo/nocebo effects place any formal study of the inner-workings and/or “efficacy” of spiritual protective practices following ritual immersion custom outside the domain of what can be academically studied. (This was true for mikvah and Niddah both until recently!) For me the more relevant academic question is:
Does it matter whether or not this custom is “legitimate” or “superstitious”? I don’t think so. At the end of the day, I possess a deeply practical character. If something works, that is, it has a practical lived benefit; and isn’t causing problems, how far and in what ways should we query the practice? Moreover, because this is a minhag (trans. “custom”), most -if not all- “problems” that can crop within this practice have the liberty to explore creative solutions and alternatives. That the traditional advice from historical pasaks and even the recommendations given by mikvah attendants and rabbis today include the three alternatives listed above, pointing to the place of creativity within Jewish practice overall.
 Bilu, Yoram. “Dybbuk and Maggid: Two Cultural Patterns of Altered Consciousness in Judaism.” AJS Review 21, no. 2 (1996): 341–66..
Elior, Rachel. Dybbuks and Jewish Women in Social History, Mysticism and Folklore, 20080901.
Safran, Gabriella. Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator, S. An-Sky. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.
Shawn, Allen. “The Dybbuk.” In Leonard Bernstein: An American Composer, 230–40. Yale University Press, 2014.
 I was in an unfamiliar city for a conference and trying to arrange a mikvah immersion prior to flying home the next day (if my flight arrives home during the day, I immerse in the city I have traveled to; if my flight arrives home close to or after dark, I immerse at my home mikvah…sometimes driving from the airport to the mikvah before driving home!). Usually, the mikvah attendant manages the screening questions to determine if I am kosher to immerse in their mikvah, and timing my immersion correctly for my travel circumstances. This time, it was a rabbi who handled the screening. He advised that I do as many of the three above protections as possible. He actually recommended that I wear my husband’s garment to sleep in, not just have it with me in the bed.
 Apparently wearing socks and shoes were also part of these spiritually protective measures (Chajes, 2003). but today this only surfaces in gender-neutral haredi standards for modest attire and proper dress for prayer.