Bet tohorah at Jacob's Wells Road
Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number: 1020792
Date first listed: 31-May-2002
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
District: City of Bristol (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference: ST 57691 72861
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.
Reasons for Designation
`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.
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry 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.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
Legacy System number: 28881
Legacy System: RSM
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
This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
End of official listing