Haaretz reports on the discovery in Cologne late last year of an ancient Hebrew inscription that apparently reveals the location of a toilet in a Jewish home built in 1266 by the wealthy Lyvermann family. The Hebrew inscription on a lintel stone in the basement of the house, which is near the medieval Cologne synagogue, reads “This is the window through which the feces are to be taken out.”
The discovery was made in December 2011. Prof. David Assaf of Tel Aviv University’s Jewish History Department gave a detailed description of the find and its contexts last week on his blog (in Hebrew) onegshabbat.blogspot.com. Writes Haaretz:
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.
Haaretz quotes Prof. Elisabeth Hollender of Goethe University in Frankfurt, who is researching the inscription, as writing about the find:
“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.”