Old Testament Toilets
People often ask me, "How did people in the Bible use the toilet?" Well, that depends! Are you talking about New Testament times, during the time of the Roman Empire? If so, there's another page on that topic. But if you're talking about Old Testament times, starting around 1990-1700 BC and continuing through the time of Alexander the Great to about 300 BC, then you've come to the right place with this page. The Jewish people have a great deal of tradition, teachings, and strict rules addressing all aspects of everyday life, including personal hygiene and public sanitation. Let's see how that relates to Old Testament Toilets and related topics.
According to the Jewish sacred writing which became תַּנַײךְ or Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish people were descended from Abraham and his family.
These were Hebrews traveling as nomads between 1990 and 1700 BC. Abraham's son Jacob had twelve sons. Jacob and his sons were said to have left Canaan during a famine and settled in northern Egypt, where their descendants came to be enslaved by the Pharaoh.
After 400 years of slavery, the Hebrew prophet Moses led them out of slavery, out of Egypt and through some forty years of desert wandering. The Hebrew people had by this time formed themselves into twelve tribes, each descended from one of Jacob's sons.
Mount Sinai and Moses
Let's go back to Moses and that wandering around 1450-1400 BC. The pit toilet seen here is constructed from local rubble just below the summit of Mount Sinai in Egypt. Below is a view of the mountain itself.Mount
See my travel pages for more pictures and details of the trek up Mount Sinai and spending a night on its summit. Yes, the sani-flush blue background does indicate that I have used this toilet, just as it means on all my other pages.
This toilet is not actually from the era of Moses himself, but the mountain has been a major pilgrimage site at least since when the Byzantine Empress Helena (ruled 313-328 AD) established a monastery at the base of the mountain.
You would think that during close to 1,700 years they would have had time to put doors and a roof on the thing!
For other relevant plumbing-related details from the Sinai, see Numbers 20:7-11:
As for some early Old Testament toilet guidance, Deuteronomy 23 instructs the Jewish people to "have a place outside the camp and go out there, and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement."
The book Rationalising the Bible — Volume 1: The Torah by Ivy Bedworth, 2016, quotes and cites this page.
The Israelites became connected to the Assyrian deity בַּעַל–פְּעוֺר or Baal-Peor. According to Numbers 25:1-15, the Israelites were living in northeastern Moab and began having illicit sex with the Moabite women. The Moabite women invited the Israelites to make sacrifices to their god, Baal of Mount Pe'or. Moses passed God's order along to the Israelite officials: execute all your men who are involved with Baal of Peor in order to stop a plague that killed 24,000. This episode was referenced in Numbers 31:16, Deuteronomy 4:3, Joshua 22:17, Hosea 9:10, Psalm 106:28, and in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 10:7-8 and Revelation 2:14.
בַּעַל–פְּעוֺר or Baal-Peor transitioned from being an Assyrian god associated with orgies into a demon. Known later in Europe as Belphegor, he was considered by both Jewish Kabbalists and Christian specialists in demonology and witch-hunting as one of the seven princes of Hell. The Christians said he was the chief demon of the deadly sin of Sloth. The Kabbalists said he was the Disputer, an enemy of Beauty who was the sixth Sephiroth, and he could be summoned to grant riches and the power of discovery and invention. De Plancy included him in the Dictionnaire Infernal, and he appeared in a short story by Niccolò Machiavelli, in John Milton's Paradise Lost, and in Victor Hugo's The Toilers of the Sea.
Belphegor is traditionally pictured sitting on a toilet, as shown here from the Dictionnaire Infernal. Talmudic traditions associate Belphegor with excretion and exposure, and say that the area in front of its idol was used as a latrine. The connection to excretion led to them calling him the Lord of the Gap or Lord of the Opening.
The Hebrew People in Canaan
The Hebrew people conquered and settled the land of Canaan between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River around 1400 BC. This land now called Israel was organized as a confederation of those twelve tribes ruled by Judges for several hundred years.
The Privies, Privacy and Power page describes a toilet-based assassination detailed in the Old Testament book of Judges. This would have happened soon after 1380 BC.
An Israelite monarchy was established around 1000 BC with Saul as its first king. He killed himself to avoid capture during a battle against the Philistines at Mount Gilboa. Three of his sons were also killed in the battle. Ish-bosheth, his only surviving son, struggled against his son-in-law David for the succession to the throne. David won the throne and the leadership of Israel. The settlement of Jerusalem already existed, but it became the national and spiritual capital city of Israel under David's rule. David was then followed by his son Solomon.
The tribes were splitting apart under Solomon. Civil war broke out after Solomon died, and Israel was split into the southern Kingdom of Judah and the northern Kingdom of Israel.
The Assyrian ruler Tiglath-Pileser III sacked Damascus and conquered that northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BC. Many of the inhabitants were taken captive and forcibly resettled in the Khabur River area of Assyrian Mesopotamia. The Kingdom of Israel continued to exist within a reduced area as a semi-independent kingdom subject to Assyria. At least, until Tiglath-Pileser's successor Sargon II invaded again in 720 BE. He deported the remainder of the population that didn't either flee or blend in.
The Ten Lost Tribes provide a vast playground for cranks to build and test their theories. Starting with Christopher Columbus, many explorers assumed that — of course — indigenous Americans must be descendants of The Lost Tribes of Israel. The Portuguese traveler Antonio de Montezions reported in the 1640s that he had found some of the Lost Tribes living in the Andes mountains in South America. This was still going on in 1830 when Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon, purporting to be the writings of ancient prophets living in the Americas from about 2200 BC until 421 AD.
Manasseh ben Israel, a prominent rabbi in Amsterdam, was convinced of these American tribes, and petitioned Oliver Cromwell to allow all the scattered Jews to return to England. The 1290 Edict of Expulsion had forbidden Jews from living in England. Cromwell agreed that this was a good idea, and while he could not immediately formalize this, he made it clear that the ban would no longer be enforced. Jews were formally readmitted in late 1655. Some Puritans were against the readmission, but there was wide support including a large faction that believed this would be a step toward the "Fifth Monarchy" (after the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires) and the return of Jesus as the Messiah in the year 1666.
In Africa, the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, the Igbo Jews and the Oyo-Yoruba Empire of Nigeria, and the Lemba people of southern Africa all believe that they are descendants of one tribe or another.
In South Asia, the Bene Ephraim, Bene Israel, and Bnei Menashe of India claim descent from various tribes. Jewish origins of the Pashtun people of Afghanistan and Pakistan have been discussed since the 19th century. An 11th century Muslim scholar suggested that the people of Kashmir are descended from the lost tribes. One theory is that the 40 years of wandering actually covered the route from Egypt to Kashmir, the real Promised Land.
Books since 1878 have claimed that the Japanese are direct descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes.
As for north-western Europe, there are theories that the Scythians and Cimmerians come from the lost tribes. Then, enthusiasts of British Israelism say that the descendants of those Scythians and Cimmerians are the ancestors of the Celts and Anglo-Saxons of Western Europe. Herbert W. Armstrong and his Worldwide Church of God argued that this theory is the "key" to understanding Biblical prophecy and preparing for the "End Times".
Jewish tradition, however, is that the Ten Lost Tribes of the Kingdom of Israel were entirely deported to Assyria and disappeared to history.
Babylonian Conquest and Exile
The Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian army in 587 BC. The kingdom's elite and many of the common people were forcibly relocated to Babylon. The Jewish religion developed outside the traditional Temple in Jerusalem. A few generations later, Babylon was conquered by the Persian Empire. Around 518 BC, the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah led some of the Jews to travel back to their homeland and return to the traditional practices. Still under Persian control, those in Jerusalem built the Second Temple in 516 BC. Other Jews remained in Babylon and further developed practices outside the traditions of the land of Israel.
The Persians were defeated by the army of Alexander the Great in 332 BC. After Alexander's death in Babylon in 323 BC, his empire was divided among his generals. Greek culture continued to influence the Levant. See the New Testament era toilets for the later Greek-influenced plumbing.
Šulak, the Babylonian Lurker of the Latrine, and the Talmud
The Babylonian approach to medicine included quite a bit of magic and monsters. Babylonian medical texts date back to the time of the First Babylonian Dynasty in the first half of the second millennium BC. However, the main Babylonian medical text is the Diagnostic Handbook written by Esagil-kin-apli of Borsippa, the ummânū or chief scholar during the reign of the king Adad-apla-iddina in 1069-1046.
Tablet XXVII of the Diagnostic Handbook describes Šulak, the Babylonian Lurker of the Latrine or Demon of the Privy. The "Lurker" category of demon in Babylonian thought lies in wait in places where potential victims are likely to be alone. A victim urinating or defecating is exposed and therefore vulnerable. "Šulak will strike him!", they say. The Babylonians seem to have gotten the idea for this demon from the Hittites, see about their toilets here. People of this era would describe a disease as the "hand" of a specific god, demon, or ghost, meaning that the ailment is the result of being struck.
The Babylonian mišittim means "stroke", a term which can mean a physical blow and which is also used to refer to a cerebrovascular accident or rapid loss of brain function due to a disturbance in the blood and thus oxygen supply to the brain. Stroke in the cerebrovascular sense was first reported in the 2nd millennium. The cause wasn't known, so being struck down by a lurking demon was a good as any other explanation.
The Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC) was the first writer to describe the sudden paralysis associated with ischemic stroke. He used the term άποπληξία or apoplēxia, meaning that the victim was "struck down with violence". English borrows his diagnostic term as apoplexy. It wasn't until 1658 when Johann Jacob Wepfer suggested in his book Apoplexia that people who died from apoplexy had bleeding in their brains.
Cerebral stroke and epilepsy were closely related in ancient medicine and easily confused in the surviving writings. See the page of New Testament era toilets for further examples.
The Jewish population in Babylon seems to have picked up this concept of the Demon of the Privy from the locals, as it is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud.
The Talmud is a key text of Judaism, second only to the Torah. The Talmud Bavli or Babylonian Talmud was compiled over the 3rd to 5th centuries AD. It contains the Mishnah, a written compendium of Judaic Oral Law, and the Babylonian Gemara, analysis and explanation of the Mishnah and related writings that also expounds broadly on the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. The Babylonian Gemara resulted from over 300 years of analysis of the Mishnah in the Babylonian Academies. The Talmud is a large set of books.
The Babylonian Talmud names the Demon of the Privy as Sheid beit ha-Kisset in Gittin folio 70a:
Our Rabbis taught: If a man lets blood and then has marital intercourse his children [born therefrom] will be weaklings. If both man and wife let blood before intercourse their children will be liable to ra'athan. [a kind of skin disease] Rabbi Papa said: This is the case only if they did not take anything to eat [in between], but if they took something to eat, there is no harm. Rabbah ben Bar Huna said: If a man immediately on returning from a journey has marital intercourse, his children will be weaklings. The Rabbis taught: On coming from a privy a man should not have sexual intercourse till he has waited long enough to walk half a mil, because the demon of the privy is with him for that time; if he does, his children will be epileptic. The Rabbis taught: If a man has sexual intercourse standing, he will be liable to convulsions; if sitting, to spasms; if she is above and he below, he will be subject to delaria [diarrhoea]. What is delaria! Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says: The cure for diarrhoea is dardara. What is dardara? — Abaye said: The "crocus of thorns". [Cantharus tinctorius] Rabbi Papa used to crunch it in his teeth and swallow it: Rabbi Papi used to crunch it and spit it out.
A mil is about a kilometer, the English word mile is borrowed from this Talmudic term.
The Demon of the Privy is discussed in Shabbat folio 67, which describes various remedies:
For an abscess one should say thus: "Let it indeed be cut down, let it indeed be healed, let it indeed be overthrown; Sharlai and Amarlai are those angels who were sent from the land of Sodom to heal boils and aches: bazak, bazik, bizbazik, mismasik, kamun kamik, thy colour [be confined] within thee, thy colour [be confined] within thee, thy seat be within thee, thy seed be like a kalut [one whose semen is locked up so he cannot reproduce] and like a mule that is not fruitful and does not increase; so be thou not fruitful nor increase in the body of So-and-so [say the mother's name here]." Against ulcers [epilepsy] one should say thus: "A drawn sword and a prepared sling, its name is not Joheb, sickness and pains." Against a demon one should say thus: "Thou wast closed up; closed up wast thou. Cursed, broken, and destroyed be Bar Tit, Bar Tame, Bar Tina [names for the demon, literally 'son of clay, son of defilement, son of filth'] as Shamgez, Mezigaz and Istamai." For a demon of the privy one should say thus: "On the head of a lion and on the snout of a lioness did we find the demon Bar Shirika Panda; with a bed of leeks I hurled him down, [and] with the jawbone of an ass I smote him."
Then, Berakoth folio 62a really gets into matters of the latrine, being dedicated to the topic:
It has been taught: Rabbi Akiba said: Once I went in
after Rabbi Joshua to a privy, and I learnt from him three
things. I learnt that one does not sit east and west
but north and south; I learnt that one evacuates not
standing but sitting; and I learnt that it is proper to
wipe with the left hand and not with the right. Said Ben
Azzai to him: Did you dare to take such liberties with
your master? He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I
required to learn. It has been taught: Ben 'Azzai said:
Once I went in after Rabbi Akiba to a privy, and I learnt
from him three things. I learnt that one does not evacuate
east and west but north and south. I also learnt that
one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learnt
it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with
the right. Said Rabbi Judah to him: Did you dare to take
such liberties with your master? — He replied: It was
a matter of Torah, and I required to learn. Rabbi Kahana
once went in and hid under Rab's bed. He heard him
chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he
required. He said to him: One would think that Abba's
mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him:
Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He
replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn.
Why should one wipe with the left hand and not with the right? — Raba said: Because the Torah was given with the right hand, as it says, At His right hand was a fiery law unto them. Rabbah ben Hanah said: Because it is brought to the mouth. Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish said: Because one binds the tefillin [on the left arm] with it. Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac said: Because he points to the accents in the scroll with it. A similar difference of opinion is found among Tannaim. Rabbi Eliezer says, because one eats with it; Rabbi Joshua says, because one writes with it; Rabbi Akiba says, because one points with it to the accents in the scroll.
Rabbi Tanhum ben Hanilai said: Whoever behaves modestly in a privy is delivered from three things: from snakes, from scorpions, and from evil spirits. Some say also that he will not have disturbing dreams. There was a certain privy in Tiberias which if two persons entered together even by day, they came to harm. Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi used to enter it separately, and they suffered no harm. The Rabbis said to them, Are you not afraid? They replied: We have learnt a certain tradition. The tradition for [avoiding harm in] the privy is modesty and silence; the tradition relating to sufferings is silence [resignation] and prayer. The mother of Abaye trained for him a lamb to go with him into the privy. [as protection against evil spirits] She should rather have trained for him a goat? [associated by the ancients with evil spirits] A satyr might be changed into a goat. Before Raba became head of the Academy, the daughter of Rabbi Hisda [his wife] used to rattle a nut in a brass dish. [to frighten away evil spirits] After he became head, she made a window for him, and put her hand on his head. [for protection from the evil spirits]
'Ulla said: Behind a fence one may ease himself immediately; in an open field, so long as he can break wind without anyone hearing it. Issi ben Nathan reported thus: Behind a fence, as long as he can break wind without anyone hearing it; in a open field, as long as he cannot be seen by anyone. An objection was raised: [The watchers] may go out by the door of the olive press and ease themselves behind a fence [immediately] and they [the olives] remain clean! — For the sake of ritual purity they made a concession. Come and hear: How far can one go without affecting the cleanness [of the olive press]? Any distance as long as he can still see it! — The case of food-stuffs prepared in purity is different, as the Rabbis made a concession for them. Rabbi Ashi said: What is meant by the words 'as long as he cannot be seen by anyone' used by Issi ben Nathan? As long as the exposed part of his body cannot be seen; but the man himself may be seen.
A certain funeral orator went down in the presence of Rabbi Nahman [to deliver an address] and said: This man was modest in all his ways. Said Rabbi Nahman to him: Did you ever follow him into a privy so that you should know whether he was modest or not? For it has been taught: A man is called modest only if he is such in the privy. And why was Rabbi Nahman so much concerned about it? Because it has been taught: Just as the dead are punished, so the funeral orators are punished and those who answer [Amen] after them.
Our Rabbis taught: Who is a modest man? One who eases himself by night in the place where he eased himself by day. [a long way off] Is that so? Has not Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: A man should always accustom himself [to consult nature] in the early morning and in the evening [in darkness] so that he may have no need to go a long distance? And again, in the day-time Raba used to go as far as a mile, but at night he said to his attendant, Clear me a spot in the street of the town, and so too Rabbi Zera said to his attendant, See if there is anyone behind the Seminary as I wish to ease myself? — Do not read 'in the place', but read, 'in the same way as he eases himself by day'. [modestly] Rabbi Ashi said, You may even retain the reading 'place', the reference being to a private corner.
The [above] text [states:] 'Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: A man should always accustom himself to consult nature morning and evening so that he may have no need to go a long distance'. It has been taught similarly, Ben 'Azzai said: Go forth before dawn and after dark, so that you should not have to go far. Feel yourself before sitting, but do not sit and then feel yourself, for if one sits and then feels himself, should witchcraft be used against him even as far away as Aspamia, he will not be immune from it. And if he forgets and does sit and then feels, what is his remedy? — When he rises he should say, thus: Not for me, not for me; not tahim nor tahtim; not these nor any part of these; neither the sorceries of sorcerers nor the sorceries of sorceresses!
The latrine details continue into the beginning of Berakoth folio 62b:
It has been taught: Ben 'Azzai says: Lie on anything but
not on the ground [for fear of serpents];
sit on anything but not on a beam. [lest it break]
Samuel said: Sleep [some say "making water"] at dawn is like a steel edge to iron; evacuation at dawn is like a steel edge to iron. Bar Kappara used to sell sayings for denarii. 'While thou art still hungry, eat; while thou art still thirsty, drink; while thy pot is still hot, empty it out. [meaning "relieve yourself"] When the horn is sounded in [the market of] Rome, do you, O son of the fig-seller, sell thy father's figs'. Abaye said to the Rabbis: When you go through the lanes of Mahoza to get to the fields, do not look to this side or to that, for perhaps women are sitting there, and it is not proper to gaze at them.
Rabbi Safra entered a privy. Rabbi Abba came and cleared his throat at the entrance. [to see if anyone was inside] He said to him: Let the master enter. When he came out, he [Rabbi Abba] said to him: You have not yet been turned into a satyr [literally "goat"], but you have learnt the manners of a satyr. Have we not learnt as follows: There was a fire there, and a superior privy. Its superiority lay in this: if one found it locked, he could be sure that someone was in there, but if he found it open, he could be sure that there was no one there. We see therefore, that it is not proper [for two to be in a privy]. He [Rabbi Safra], however, was of opinion that it was dangerous [to keep him waiting], as it has been taught: Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel says: To keep back the fecal discharge causes dropsy; to keep back the urinary discharge causes jaundice.
Rabbi Eleazar once entered a privy, and a Persian came and thrust him away. Rabbi Eleazar got up and went out, and a serpent came and tore out the other's gut. Rabbi Eleazar applied to him the verse, Therefore will I give a man for thee. Read not adam [a man] but edom [an Edomite].
The Jewish prayer אשר יצר or Asher yatzar is traditionally recited after acts of excretion. It expresses thanks to God for the ability to excrete, for existence would be impossible without it.
After urinating or defecating, the person leaves the bathroom and washes their hands. Jewish etiquette says that the hands should be washed outside the bathroom, but if this is impossible (sink inside, none outside) wash them inside and dry them outside. Once the hands are washed and dried, recite:
Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory that if even one of them ruptures, or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You (even for a short period). Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.
The Qumran Community and the Dead Sea Scrolls
Meanwhile, back in Palestine, the site of Qumran was occupied during the late Second Temple period (about 100 BC through 100 AD) a Jewish sect identified as the Essenes by many scholars. They were described by contemporary authors including Pliny the Elder, Flavius Josephus, and Philo Judaeus.
This sect believed that the Temple in Jerusalem and its sacrificial ritual had been polluted by priests who were ritually impure and therefore unfit to serve. They had withdrawn into the desert to make a desert camp, a substitute temple of a sort, where God's presence could dwell in their midst while they waited for the opportunity to take control of the Temple in Jerusalem. This Qumran community stored a collection of religious literature written on scrolls in caves surrounding their settlement. These scrolls, discovered between 1946 and 1946, are now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a mixture of biblical manuscripts from what is now known as the Hebrew Bible with some other religious writing. About 40% of the material in the Dead Sea Scrolls are copies of texts from the Hebrew Bible. Another 30% are books like Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, Sirach, and additional Psalms, material not canonized in the Hebrew Bible. The remaining material, about 30% of the total, are "Sectarian" manuscripts.
The War Scroll, part of that last category and designated 1QM, describes the community's anticipated forty-year war in which the "Sons of Light" (the Qumran community) would defeat the "Sons of Darkness" (everyone else) and usher in a messianic era. You can see the original here.
The Temple Scroll, designated 11Q19, is one of the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It describes a Jewish temple which has never been built, to be much larger than the First Temple of Solomon with an Outer Court approximately 1600 cubits (about 730 meters) on a side. The scroll specifies detailed regulations about the sacrifices and other practices to be carried out there.
Anyone who lies with his wife and has an ejaculation,
for three days shall not enter anywhere in the city
of the temple in which I shall install my name.
[11Q19, Column 45, verses 11, 12]
The center of the idealized Temple is a Kadosh Hakadashim or Holy of Holies. Around that is an Inner Court, about 280 cubits (or 128 meters) on each side, an area restricted to the priests. That is surrounded by a Middle Court about 480 cubits (about 220 meters) on each side, "the area for the cultically qualified men". Then that Outer Court, about 1600 cubits (or 730 meters) on a side, "the area for the ritually pure Israelites." The scroll's author specifies that an extremely high level of ritual purity is required even to enter the city, let alone to go into even the outermost Court of the temple itself. See, for example, the passage shown at right.
The Temple in Jerusalem had been thoroughly desecrated in what is called the abomination of desolation or the desolating sacrilege, מְשׁמֵם שׁקּוּץ (or šiqqŭṣ mišômēm) in Hebrew or τό βδέλυγμα της ερημώσεως in Greek.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid Emperor whose lineage had gained power from one of Alexander the Great's generals, set out to convert all the races in the Seleucid Empire to Greek culture. He started by establishing a gymnasium in Jerusalem where all the athletes performed in the nude. The circumcised Jews stood out, leading to a trade in fake foreskins. Really, see 1st Maccabees, 1:1-16.
Antiochus then removed many of the gold articles from the Temple, and followed that by plundering the city and killing many of the citizens. Observation of Jewish festivals and circumcision were both banned under threat of the death penalty. Then Antiochus brought in the pigs. According to Josephus:
And when the king built an idol altar upon God's Altar, he slew swine upon it, and so offered a sacrifice neither according to the law, nor the Jewish religious worship in that country. He also compelled them to forsake the worship which they paid their own God, and to adore those whom he took to be gods; and made them build temples, and raise idol altars, in every city and village, and offer swine upon them every day.
The pig sacrifice is believed to have happened on December 6th in the year 167 BC according to our current calendar. Some of the Jews were forced to eat pork, and to worship three stones, probably meteorites, representing the Greek gods Zeus, Athene, and Dionysus. That date two weeks before the winter solstice corresponds to a primary festival of Dionysus, for whom the pig was a favored sacrificial animal.
So, between the pigs, the meteorites, and the fake foreskins, the Temple was a wreck. Out in the desert, the Essenes at Qumran were preparing for an apocalyptic war and tightening down the toilet rules.
Some of the content of the Temple Scroll and the War Scroll indicate that the toilet habits of the Qumran sect significantly differed from other ancient Jews and the surrounding Greek and Roman citizens. Josephus' writings also describe some of these differences. The War Scroll describes the needed battle formations and military equipment, and it also specifies the required defecation and urination processes, using "place for a hand" to refer to a toilet:
There shall be a space between all their camps and the "place of the hand", about two thousand cubits [about 900 meters], and no unseemly evil thing shall be seen in the vicinity of their encampments. [1QM 7:6-7]
The Temple Scroll specifies that there should be no toilets in Jerusalem, but they should be in roofed structures some three thousand cubits or 1,370 meters to the northwest of the city:
And you shall make them a "place for a hand" outside the city, to which they shall go out, to the northwest of the city—roofed houses with pits within them into which the excrement will descend, (so that) it will (not) be visible at any distance from the city, three thousand cubits. [11QT XLVI, 13-16]
Those distances of two thousand and three thousand cubits are beyond the distance a Jew is allowed to walk on the Sabbath. But Josephus reported that the Essenes avoided this problem by not defecating on the Sabbath:
[On the Sabbath] they dare not even move an object, or go to stool. On other days, they dig a hole one foot deep with their mattocks [σχαλίδι] (for such is the hatchet given to the new disciples). They squat there, covered by their mantles so as not to offend the rays of God. Then they push back the excavated soil into the hole. For this operation they choose the loneliest places. However natural the evacuation of excrement, they are accustomed to wash themselves afterwards as though defiled.
The Qumran community was strictly interpreting Biblical laws, specifically Deuteronomy 23:9-14, and differed from other Jews in considering excrement as a source of ritual impurity. At least one scholar explains that this view of human excrement leading to ritual impurity comes from priestly circles, as cooking over fires fueled by human dung was allowed at one time, as shown by Ezekiel 4:10-17:
"You will be allowed eight ounces of bread a day, and it will have to last until the next day. You will also have a limited amount of water to drink, two cups a day. You are to build a fire out of dried human excrement, bake bread on the fire, and eat it where everyone can see you." The Lord said, "This represents the way the Israelites will have to eat food which the Law forbids, when I scatter them to foreign countries." But I replied, "No, Sovereign Lord! I have never defiled myself. From childhood on I have never eaten meat from any animal that died a natural death or was killed by wild animals. I have never eaten any food considered unclean." So God said, "Very well. I will let you use cow dung instead [of human dung], and you can bake your bread on that." And he added, "Mortal man, I am going to cut off the supply of bread for Jerusalem. The people there will be distressed and anxious as they measure out the food they eat and the water they drink. They will run out of bread and water; they will be in despair, and they will waste away because of their sins."
The rabbis, and thus the Talmud, did not consider human excrement to be ritually impure because there is no basis for that in the Pentateuch. However, the Qumran sect considered Prophetic writing such as Ezekial to be authoritative scripture for legal use.
See the New Testament era toilets for later Greek-influenced plumbing, and see the toilets of Republican-era Rome, Oplontis, Pompeii, and Galerius for the Imperial Roman period that followed in Israel.
Also compare the Mount Sinai toilet to the pit toilet in the Beşparmak Daglari of Turkey.
See pictures of my trip to Egypt for much more on Mount Sinai and Egypt in general.
See Privies, Privacy and Power for a toilet-based assassination described in the Old Testament.
Also see the page of Toilet Signs for some further Old Testament toiletological references.