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Parshat Ki Teitzei – Bathroom etiquette

From the biblical instructions to keep the camp clean to the creation of a flushing toilet to worries about toilet demons, here's how to go (Ki Teitzei)
Portrait of John Harington. Attributed to Custodis. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of John Harington. Attributed to Custodis. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Some people erroneously think that Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet. However, most people know that Crapper (1836 – 1910) was a businessman and plumber, who founded the London company Thomas Crapper & Co. He made improvements to the toilet – adding a floating ballcock and replacing the S-bend with a U-bend. However, he was not the first person to invent the flushing toilet.

It is likely that the actual inventor of the flush mechanism was Ismail al-Jazari, a 12th century polymath and inventor. In his magnum opus The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices he describes 100 mechanical devices he had invented including a basin which fills with water and drains when the user pulls a lever. It has a miniature slave who fills the basin and a duck that lets out the water. And on top it is decorated with a peacock. This is basically the mechanism that we use today in our toilets (though without the slave, duck or peacock). However, it was not designed or used as a toilet, but only to fill and drain a basin for ritual handwashing.

Design for flushing basin by Ismail al-Jazari. (Public Domain)

The inventor of the modern flush toilet was actually John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I. He wrote a satirical pamphlet in 1596, entitled, “A New Discourse on a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax” which is one of the more bizarre works I have ever read.

Sheet music from Harington’s ‘Metamorphosis of Ajax.” (Public Domain)

“Jakes” was an Elizabethan slang term for the toilet, so Ajax (which begins with a story about the Greek hero of that name) is actually a crude reference to the WC. The pamphlet contains poetry (in Greek and English), music, Biblical quotes and bad-taste jokes. Interspersed with all this are apologies and justifications for the crude language. Some interpreted the pamphlet (which was widely circulated in manuscript before being printed) as a allegorical attack on the norms and mores of the era, which should all be “flushed away.”

However, the pamphlet also describes in detail the flush toilet that Harington had installed in his own home. Several of his friends had also installed his mechanism and eventually Harington built one for the queen herself. All I can say is that if you are ever stuck on the jakes with no reading material, maybe you should pick up a copy of the “Metamorphosis of Ajax.”

Diagram of Harington’s flushing toilet in ‘Metamorphosis of Ajax.’ (Public Domain)

Harington was an incredibly interesting character, but I’ll be brief because I want to get back to the bathroom (and this week’s Torah portion).

Despite being the queen’s godson and one of her favorite courtiers, Harington got in trouble with Queen Bess for showing her ladies-in-waiting saucy sections of a translation he’d made of “Orlando Furioso.” This was a poem written in 1516 by Ludovico Ariosto and the title translates as “The Frenzy of Orlando” (or more literally “Raging Roland”). It is set during the war between Charlemagne’s army and the invading Saracens trying to overthrow the Christian empire. But in the poem, Orlando travels throughout the entire world and even takes a trip to the moon on Elijah’s chariot. Actually, rather than my summary, perhaps you should also add “Orlando” to your bathroom reading list.

Anyway, as punishment of titillating her ladies in waiting with short excerpts Harington had translated, Elizabeth banished her godson from court and forbade him to return until he had translated the entire poem – all 38,736 lines of it. Yes, I know this is a bizarre punishment. As best I can make out, the queen thought he would never finish the task and she would be rid of him. But Harington completed the task and returned to court soon afterwards. Harington’s translation was so good it is still in use today.

In 1599 Elizabeth sent Harington to Ireland to subdue a rebellion. He served under Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex and another favorite of the queen. Harington’s letters and journal are one of the best sources we have of this campaign. However, Essex earned the queen’s displeasure when he offered a truce. When Harington presented the terms of the truce to the queen for approval she said, “Tell my witty godson to get him home… it is no season to fool it here!”

However, Harington soon charmed his way back to Elizabeth’s good graces. He tried to amuse her during her final Christmas by reading comic verse. However, the queen stopped him, saying, “When thou dost feel creeping time at thy gate, these fooleries will please thee less – I am past my relish for such matters.”

In 1603, when James ascended the throne, Harington was briefly jailed, but managed to escape and prove his loyalty to the king. James rewarded him by making him a Knight of the Bath, one of the highest honors. However, Harington professed to be shocked by the behavior in James’s court – especially the drinking by both men and women.

Harington died on November 20, 1612.

So, we know when the flush toilet was invented, but in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, one of the commandments involves how to go to the bathroom in an era before toilets (Deuteronomy 23:13-14):

There shall be an area for you outside the camp, and you shall relieve yourself there, outside. You shall have a spade on your belt, and when you sit outside you shall dig with it and cover your excrement when you return.

Yes, the portion named “When you go” actually instructs us how to go.

This is included in Maimonides list of commandments (positive mitzvah 193) as well as the Sefer Hachinuch’s list (mitzvah 567) and the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (positive mitzvah 119). According to the Chinuch, the commandment still applies today, though only to soldiers (and no, as far as I know, the IDF does not give each soldier a toilet shovel).

What I find interesting is that the Talmud basically ignores this commandment completely. In Ketuvot (5a) the rabbis even interpret it metaphorically (based on the strange language of the verse) to mean that you should stick your fingers in your ears to avoid hearing something inappropriate (Harington, take note).

Rather, the Talmud describes the “bathroom” etiquette of the Roman era when they had fixed toilets and no longer needed shovels.

Many Roman towns had a forica, an open plan, multi-seat facility where men and women would all sit together to do their business. If you visit the The Archeological Park – Davidson Center adjacent to Jerusalem’s Western Wall you can see a row of toilet seats made of rock. They are easily recognizable by their similarity to modern facilities (except without the walls or privacy we are accustomed to).

In fact, a private bathroom was so rare, that the Mishna (Tamid 26a) says the toilet used by the priests in the Temple was known as the “bathroom of honor” because there was a lock on the door, and people would know if there was someone inside or not.

The public nature of bathroom usage explains why the rabbis were so strict about how much of one’s body may be exposed when relieving oneself (Berachot 23a).

A man may uncover one handbreadth behind him and two handbreadths in his front, and a woman one handbreadth behind and nothing in front.

The rabbis recommended using the bathroom at night, when it was dark and there were fewer people around. Nevertheless, Rabbi Akiva admitted that he once entered the bathroom to spy on his teacher Rabbi Yehoshua and learned three halakhot. And in the ultimate irony, Rabbi Akiva’s student, Ben Azzai confessed that he also once followed his teacher into the bathroom to spy on him and learn how to behave. The justification in both cases was, “It is Torah and I must learn,” (Berachot 62a).

On that same page of Talmud, there is a description of a bathroom in Tiberias where, “when two would enter, even during the day, they would be harmed by demons.” Demons in the bathroom were a genuine concern at the time, and were perhaps one reason that most people went to communal bathrooms.

The Talmud (ad loc.) lists several other rabbis who were exceptional in that they were able to go to the bathroom on their own – either their merits protected them, or they devised means of protection from the demons.

Apparently, Elizabethans were also worried by bathroom demons, because Harington included a poem and illustration of “an elder being tempted at stool.”

Illustration of a bathroom demon in Harington’s ‘Metamorphosis of Ajax.” (Public Domain)

A godly father, sitting on a draught,
To do as need and nature hath us taught,
Mumbled (as was his manner) certain prayers,
And unto him the devil straight repairs!
And boldly to revile him he begins,
Alleging that such prayers are deadly sins.

So, next time you need to go, remember the advice of the Torah portion, and do it privately, outside the camp. But also, keep an eye out for demons.

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About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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