Menachem Mendel

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A 13th c. Jewish Bathroom

A few days ago David Assaf of Tel Aviv University reported (Hebrew) on his blog, Oneg Shabbat, about a most interesting archaeological find in the German city of Köln/Cologne. Köln was know to have an established Jewish community in the Middle Ages, and while digging in the Jewish Quarter, archaeologists discovered among other things a mikveh and a a doorpost with the following Hebrew inscription: זה החלון להוציא צואה דרך שם (This is the window through which one should take out excrement).

Below is the doorpost after it was cleaned and the original condition and location in which it was found. The photo is from David Assaf’s website.

Bathroomkeln

David Assaf brings the following description from Elizabeth Hollander, who is researching this find:

The context is: The owner of the house east of the courtyard of the synagogue, built around 1266, had the cesspit for his house dug not on his property but in the courtyard of the synagogue. Medieval cesspits were usually pretty large and opened only every 10-20 years to extract the excrements and any garbage thrown into the cesspit.

Usually they were opened from the top. In this case, the community had not been able to stop the (rather rich) owner of the cesspit to build it in the courtyard of the synagogue (not only reshut harabbim but also a place where one would expect special purity, since we are talking medieval Ashkenaz), but apparently they were able to prevent him from emptying his cesspit from the top, i.e. through the courtyard. So he had to have this ‘window’ built in the basement of his house, with a (usually sealed) opening to the cesspit through which the excrements could be taken out.

This is basically the information included in the German text on the page. It is part of the official website of the Cologne excavations. (They have some other exciting finds …) I’m actually planning a scholarly publication of this inscription, discussing the situation of the community that could not prevent someone from trespassing on the common property, but seem to have been able to prevent him from trespassing even further. In addition to being highly entertaining, this inscription is also a beautiful example to the fact that Hebrew was a living language in 13th century Ashkenaz.

After bringing a few Talmudic sources about the disposal of excrement, Assaf brings the following from Hollander.

The cesspit does concur to Rashi’s description: it is a deep pit that is far from the actual bet kisse: the room from where excrements and garbage were disposed into the cesspit (what you would call sherutim in Modern Hebrew) was probably on the ground floor of the building. A type of wide tube, build from stone, let from the sherutim to the cesspit. The remnants of it can still be seen. That room is not the one where the inscription was placed. The inscription is in the basement and its function is only to indicate where the wall can be broken in order to reach the cesspit when it needs to be emptied (and the waste dropped into the river or somewhere else far away from human habitation). From inside the cesspit one can see a kind of “patch” near the top, fitting the “window” with the inscription, where the wall was broken in order to reach the contents of the cesspit and rebuild afterwards. That probably happened every 10-20 years, maybe even less frequent. The owner of the house would pay for the services of people whose job it was to empty cesspits, but they would be used to opening the cesspit from the top, which was impossible in this case since the top was in/under the courtyard on the south-east side of the Synagogue. Thus “lehotsi” in this case really means “to take out”, but out of the cesspit, not out of the house. The question remains, why the (comparatively rich) owner of the house decided to write in stone that this is where one opens the cesspit to take out the waste, and did not find a less expensive option. Also, the people who eventually did empty the cesspit were not Jews; the inscription in all its glory didn’t help them. I don’t have ready answers to these questions. Who would think that modern scholars of medieval Jewish culture have to think about the architecture of medieval cesspits one day

Another interesting aspect of this archaeological news is that this morning Haaretz has a report about this find that is based upon David Assaf’s blog post. It includes a link to his blog post and is entirely sourced from there. A nice example of the fruitful interaction between more established media outlets and newer mediums.

Assaf also notes the irony that the name of the city, Cologne, is the source of the name for the pleasant cologne water/cologne.

3 Responses to “A 13th c. Jewish Bathroom”

  1. 1
    DF:

    Great post, MM, yasher koach. David assaf has a beautiful hebrew and is always fun to read. (Loves to poke fun at the foibles of the frum world.) I particuarly liked Hollander’s observation: “In addition to being highly entertaining, this inscription is also a beautiful example to the fact that Hebrew was a living language in 13th century Ashkenaz.”

  2. 2
    Menachem Mendel:

    It’s incredible how much scholarly writing may be caused by this inscription.

  3. 3
    Joachim Martillo:

    “The question remains, why the (comparatively rich) owner of the house decided to write in stone that this is where one opens the cesspit to take out the waste, and did not find a less expensive option. Also, the people who eventually did empty the cesspit were not Jews; the inscription in all its glory didn’t help them. I don’t have ready answers to these questions. Who would think that modern scholars of medieval Jewish culture have to think about the architecture of medieval cesspits one day.”

    To understand the writings and thinking of earlier time period, it is often necessary to know how ordinary things worked or how people dealt with every day matters like excrement.

    Here is some dialogue from Romeo and Juliet Act 1 Scene 1.

    GREGORY
    That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes
    to the wall.
    SAMPSON
    True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels,
    are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push
    Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids
    to the wall.

    To understand the double entendre of thrust to the wall, one must know how Elizabethans dealt with slop that had to be removed from an apartment on an upper floor.

    Anyway one can easily come up with a reasonable hypothesis about the stone inscription. There was probably a dispute that was brought before a leading scholar or maybe even a bet din.

    Probably the owner was instructed to put up a sign that gave direction on emptying the cesspit. The owner really did not want the excrement brought through the window. Thus he put up a sign in Hebrew that the workmen would not understand and made certain that it would be hard to replace the sign with one in German.

    As for the claim that some how this inscription proves that Hebrew was a living language, it is the sort of propaganda that one must expect from the Jewish History Department at Tel Aviv University.

    [Shlomo Sand discusses the nature of Jewish History Departments at Israeli Universities at 2'10" and after in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EmvANgw9Mk .]

    The grammar of זה החלון להוציא צואה דרך שם (This is the window through which one should take out excrement) is basically Slavic and would be written with almost identical grammar in modern Polish: To jest okno, aby wydobyć odchody. I am not sure how one would express the instruction in 13th century German, but in modern German the directive would be something like: In diesem Fenster können Exkremente entfernen! If 13th century German Hebrew were a genuine descendant of Palestinian Hebrew and not a relexified Slavic dialect as Tel Aviv Professor Paul Wexler points out, we would probably not commonly see an adjectival use of the infinitive construct at all in either 13th century written Hebrew or Modern Israeli Hebrew, which is relexified Yiddish, which is itself a relexified Slavic language.

    There was no living tradition of Hebrew anywhere in the 13th century because the vast majority of Palestinian Judeans/Jews had converted to Christianity or to Islam and shifted linguistically to Arabic (or probably more correctly to a spoken Arabic that is more properly a colloquial language that is grammatically Aramaic relexified to an Arabic vocabulary. Jewish communities outside of Palestine were almost entirely descended from converts and the written Hebrew of these convert-descended communities was typically their everyday language relexified to an Hebrew vocabulary.

    The 11th century Karaite Jewish Arab scholar Yeshuah ben Yehudah wrote in Arabic, but his works were important enough to be translated into Hebrew. The Jewish Arab translator, Yaqub ben Shimon, of Yeshuah’s Sefer haYashar is often criticized for atrocious Hebrew by modern (generally) Rabbanite Jewish scholars, who are often trained in Ashkenazi Rabbinic Hebrew or Modern Israeli Hebrew, which are basically Slavic languages with Hebrew vocabulary. In point of fact Yaqub’s Hebrew was no more atrocious than that of later European Jewish translators of Arabic Jewish works. Yaqub’s Hebrew was as one would expect Arabic relexified to Hebrew, and modern Jewish scholars thinking in Slavic languages have difficulty understanding the very different language.

    Wexler points out the following in Two Tiered Relexification in Yiddish on p. 56.

    “Just as the spread of Palestinian Christianity to Europe did not require a massive migration of Palestinian Christians to Europe, so too there is no need to assume that Judaism reached Europe with a large Jewish migration following the roman conquest of Judea c. 70 A.D. (a popular assumption which is totally unsubstantiated). Hence, it would be accurate to define the ‘Jewish’ languages as ‘languages of converts to Judaism’. The absence of evidence for ‘Jewish linguistic creativity’ also inclines me to ascribe most of the ‘Jewish’ languages to converts, who would have had a strong motivation for creating a separate linguistic profile to accompany their new ethno-religious identity. Exceptions may turn out to be apparent. For example, Italian Jews have developed varieties of Judaized Italian in the absence of widescale conversion of non-Jews to Judaism in any historical period. The reason for the variegated Judeo-Italian speech may lie in the foreign (Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Greek, and German) origins of most Italian Jews and internal migration (e.g. Roman Judeo-Italian reveals some features that appear to be of Sicilian origin).”

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