Archaeologists in Cologne, Germany have uncovered a fascinating 13th-century Hebrew inscription on a lintel stone in the basement of a home near the city’s ancient synagogue. The Hebrew inscription reads “This is the window through which the feces are to be taken out.”
The inscription was discovered in December 2011 on the lintel above a walled-up window in the cellar of Lyvermann House, which was built in about 1266 and belonged to a wealthy Jewish family that lived right near the synagogue. Behind the wall was a cesspool, six meters deep.
According to Prof. David Assaf of Tel Aviv University’s Jewish History Department, “Such a serious-amusing inscription has never been found anywhere, not before and not since.”
Assaf, who discussed the finding on his Oneg Shabbat blog last week, says the inscription would be significant if only because it demonstrates that Hebrew was a living language among the Jews of the area known among medieval Jewry as Ashkenaz.
The Jewish community of Cologne in western Germany on the banks of the Rhine River is documented from the year 1135, but systematic excavations of the Jewish quarter, which have been going on since 2007, have uncovered findings dating back to Roman times.
To understand the intriguing inscription itself, it pays to know something about sanitation in the Middle Ages, long before the advent of modern plumbing. In his blog, Assaf explains that while in rural areas one could easily relieve oneself in nature, sanitation in urban settings was far more complicated.
“In general the custom was to relieve oneself in a chamber pot that was stored in the bedroom, usually under the bed,” Assaf wrote. “Its smelly contents would be emptied every morning into a wide, deep cesspit, which served several neighboring houses. These cesspits were emptied once every 10 to 20 years, and their contents dumped outside the city, usually into a river.”
In this particular case, the wealthy Lyvermann was able to ensure that the cesspool would not be dug right under his house, but rather in the courtyard of the adjacent synagogue.
Prof. Elisabeth Hollender of Goethe University in Frankfurt, who is researching the inscription, wrote about the finding: “Usually they [the cesspits] were opened from the top. In this case, the community had not been able to stop the (rather rich) owner of the cesspit from building it in the courtyard of the synagogue (not only in the public domain, but also a place where one would expect special purity), but apparently they were able to prevent [Lyvermann] 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 waste products could be taken out.”
In other words, the window under the inscription, which was broken open only once every decade or two, was used to actually bring the excrement into the basement, and from there it was taken for disposal.
In his blog, Assaf explains a passage of Talmud from the tractate Brachot that discusses whether one could pray in a place where there was a smell of excrement. He then offers an explanation from the medieval commentator Rashi, who says that in his time these very deep cesspits collected feces from channels that were dug slanting downward, so that whatever was thrown into them rolled away from where it originated. Thus in the home or synagogue there was no smell.
Assaf again quotes Hollender, who confirms that the excavations match Rashi’s description. “The cesspit does concur with Rashi’s description,” she wrote. “It is a deep pit that is far from the actual beit kesai — the room from where excrement and garbage were disposed into the cesspit (what you would call sherutim in modern Hebrew) [which] was probably on the ground floor of the building. A type of wide tube, built from stone, led 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),” Hollender noted.
“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 [sic].
“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 southeast side of the synagogue. Thus [the Hebrew word] ‘lehotzi’ in this case really means ‘to take out,’ but out of the cesspit, not out of the house.”
According to Hollender, questions about the inscription still remain. For example, the workers who opened cesspits were not Jews, so it isn’t clear how a Hebrew inscription could have helped them.
“Who would think that modern scholars of medieval Jewish culture would have to think about the architecture of medieval cesspits one day?” Hollender wryly inquired of Assaf.