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Bet tohorah at Jacob's Wells Road

A Scheduled Monument in Clifton, Bristol

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Coordinates

Latitude: 51.4532 / 51°27'11"N

Longitude: -2.6103 / 2°36'36"W

OS Eastings: 357691.147001

OS Northings: 172861.778739

OS Grid: ST576728

Mapcode National: GBR C4K.NX

Mapcode Global: VH88M.PQXW

Entry Name: Bet tohorah at Jacob's Wells Road

Scheduled Date: 31 May 2002

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1020792

English Heritage Legacy ID: 28881

County: Bristol

Electoral Ward/Division: Clifton

Built-Up Area: Bristol

Traditional County: Gloucestershire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Bristol

Church of England Parish: Clifton Christ Church with Emmanuel

Church of England Diocese: Bristol

Details

The monument includes a rock cut chamber given form by stonework thought to
date from the medieval period, and incorporating Jewish associations. There is
a constant flow of spring water through the chamber. The site is considered,
on the latest expert opinion, to be a `bet tohorah' or cleansing house,
used in Jewish burial ceremonies.

The structure is built into the wall and below ground level, partially inside
and partially outside, a building on the west side of the city of Bristol
at the junction of Jacob's Wells Road and Constitution Hill. It consists
of a small rock-cut chamber entered via a low rectangular arch and two stone
steps. On the lintel over the entrance is an inscription in Hebrew which
is partly damaged. To the south of the chamber, under the floor of the
present building, is a stone chamber containing standing water.

On entering the modern building a long passage leads to a room where the site
of the spring lies. At the foot of a modern staircase the existing floor level
has been excavated to reveal an aperture, about 1m deep, into which a modern
drain empties, but beneath this, in the floor of the excavation, a stone
chamber containing standing water is visible. It is likely that this chamber
occupies at least the full area of the room beneath which it has been
identified.

In the north west wall of the modern room is an opening, about 1.3m high,
within which at least two Pennant Sandstone steps lead down into a cave
beyond. Door jambs can be seen at the inner step, with two lintels above. A
modern lintel sits upon a massive original lintel, 0.7m deep, which bears an
inscription believed to be Hebrew. This lintel in turn rests on a corbel
angled away from the entrance. Below the corbel, a large vertical slab runs
back into the rock cut cave beyond, forming the jamb of the doorway. This
stone is 1m high, 0.6m wide and 0.2m thick, and further stones continue north
west against the cave wall. This jamb is rendered almost down to the level of
the inner step, but a block of stone with four perforations is
incorporated into it at this level. Below, the jamb continues as a depth
of laid horizontal slabs down to rock level. Externally, the jamb is
obscured by modern walling. The other jamb is composed of similar
stonework. The rock cut cave, only partially excavated, extends 1.9m north
of the outer edge of the outer lintel, and is some 2.5m deep from the
original lintel. Within the cave, beyond the lintel, there is much
collapsed stone, and the rough stone of the further edge of the cavity can
be seen. This was originally thought to be roughly hewn natural rock, but
can now be seen to be the underside of a stone stair which is thought to
have led down to the chamber of the `bet tohorah'.

The low height of the lintel, bearing the inscription, from the modern floor
level suggests that there is much overburden to be removed before the full
extent of the entrance can be traced.

The inscription, in Hebrew script, on the original lintel, is only partly
visible, but was first interpreted as meaning `flowing water'. This has
recently been reviewed, and is now interpreted as meaning `living waters',
a phraseology specifically used in Hebrew to describe the type of sacred water
required to cleanse a person after touching a corpse. This association with
burial practise is reinforced by the proximity of the Jacob's Wells Road
site to the medieval Jewish cemetery, known as `Jews Acre', which was
established after 1177 when provincial Jewries gained the right to make
cemeteries beyond city walls. Prior to this date all Jewish provincial
dead were taken to the `house of eternity' or `bet `olam' in London.

The rendering on the door jamb is in off-white plaster, and bears several
scratched letters, the script of which is judged to be 18th century. The site
was discovered in 1987 by members of the Bristol Temple Local History Group
who were investigating the tradition of a Jewish ritual bath existing within
the former fire engine house at 33 Jacob's Wells Road, and the site was
surveyed in 1988.

The modern floor of the room is excluded from the scheduling, although
the ground and the chamber beneath it is included.

MAP EXTRACT
The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

`Bet tohorah' are `cleansing houses' used in the Jewish burial ceremony
and are therefore typically associated with Jewish burial grounds.
`Tohorah', which means `cleansing' or `purification' is the process of
washing the dead before burial. This involves rubbing and washing the
undressed body, cutting the finger and toe nails, and cutting the hair of
the corpse. Washing is usually carried out on a laving stone, and nine
`kav' of water (20.5 litres) is poured over the body, or it is washed in
flowing spring water. The body is then wrapped in a shroud, the laving
stone washed, and the officiants cleanse their hands with salt.

A survey by English Heritage has identified some 25 Jewish burial
grounds, a few of which date from the medieval period, notably at York
where excavation has taken place, and Winchester where burials were found.
There are, however, no known standing structures associated with them,
indeed, expert opinion indicates that there are probably very few if any
standing structures of the medieval period associated with Jewish
cemeteries in Europe.

The `bet tohorah' in Bristol, although not fully examined, survives
substantially intact. The re-interpretation of this site as a `bet
tohorah' is a significant addition to the understanding of Jewish life in
medieval England, and as such is a unique example of this class of
monument in this country, possibly being the only one from an early period
existing outside the Holy Land.

The wholesale banishment of the medieval Jewish community from England in 1290
led to many of the Jewish sacred sites of the period becoming lost or
forgotten. The re-discovery of one of what must have been many `bet
tohorah' distributed throughout England in the later 12th and 13th
centuries gives us an opportunity to increase our understanding of the
nature of these enigmatic monuments.

Source: Historic England

Sources

Books and journals
'The discovery of two medieval mikva'ot in London' in Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society, (2002), 18-20
'Jacob's Well Bristol Brit only known med Jewish ritual bath' in Transactions of the Bristol and Glouc Archaeological Society, , Vol. CXII, (1994), 74-86

Source: Historic England

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