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Alan Cooper





Keeping Excrement out of God’s Presence





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Alan Cooper





Keeping Excrement out of God’s Presence








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Keeping Excrement out of God’s Presence

Deuteronomy requires Israelite soldiers to carry a shovel with them for covering their feces, outside the war camp, because God is in the camp. The Qumranites and Karaites assume that feces must be impure, while the rabbis extend the law to include times of prayer and Torah study, and maintaining human decency at all times.


Keeping Excrement out of God’s Presence

British trench near the Albert–Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

Two curious laws in Deuteronomy 23:11–15 relate to battlefield conduct. Both come under the heading:

כג:י כִּֽי תֵצֵ֥א מַחֲנֶ֖ה עַל אֹיְבֶ֑יךָ וְנִ֨שְׁמַרְתָּ֔ מִכֹּ֖ל דָּבָ֥ר רָֽע:
23:10 When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward.[1]

The first law describes the law of nocturnal emissions:

כג:יא כִּֽי יִהְיֶ֤ה בְךָ֙ אִ֔ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא יִהְיֶ֥ה טָה֖וֹר מִקְּרֵה לָ֑יְלָה וְיָצָא֙ אֶל מִח֣וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה לֹ֥א יָבֹ֖א אֶל תּ֥וֹךְ הַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה: כג:יב וְהָיָ֥ה לִפְנֽוֹת עֶ֖רֶב יִרְחַ֣ץ בַּמָּ֑יִם וּכְבֹ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ יָבֹ֖א אֶל תּ֥וֹךְ הַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה:
23:11 If anyone among you has been rendered unclean by a nocturnal emission, he must leave the camp, and he must not reenter the camp. 23:12 Toward evening he shall bathe in water, and at sundown he may reenter the camp.

The second law commands that the latrine be outside the camp and all feces covered:

כג:יג וְיָד֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לְךָ֔ מִח֖וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה וְיָצָ֥אתָ שָׁ֖מָּה חֽוּץ: כג:יד וְיָתֵ֛ד תִּהְיֶ֥ה לְךָ֖ עַל אֲזֵנֶ֑ךָ וְהָיָה֙ בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֣ ח֔וּץ וְחָפַרְתָּ֣ה בָ֔הּ וְשַׁבְתָּ֖ וְכִסִּ֥יתָ אֶת צֵאָתֶֽךָ: כג:טו כִּי֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ מִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ׀ בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֗ךָ לְהַצִּֽילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֙יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ וְהָיָ֥ה מַחֲנֶ֖יךָ קָד֑וֹשׁ וְלֹֽא יִרְאֶ֤ה בְךָ֙ עֶרְוַ֣ת דָּבָ֔ר וְשָׁ֖ב מֵאַחֲרֶֽיךָ:
23:13 There shall be an area for you outside the camp, where you may relieve yourself. 23:14 With your gear you shall have a spike,[2] and when you have squatted you shall dig a hole with it and cover up your excrement. 23:15 Since Yhwh your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly (ערות דבר) among you and turn away from you.

The Discordant Juxtaposition of the Laws

The two laws are oddly juxtaposed. The first addresses what looks like a straightforward matter of ritual impurity, comparable to Leviticus 15:16, “When a man has an emission of semen, he shall bathe his whole body in water and remain unclean until evening.”[3] Even though that law is found in the Priestly material, it likely reflects broader ancient Israelite norms.[4]

The second seems to address the more amorphous concept of excrement being disgusting. Since God, in the Bible’s conception, appears in Israelite war camps to save them from their enemies, Deuteronomy warns the people not to leave their feces exposed and risk offending God and causing God to leave the camp, thereby endangering the soldiers’ lives.[5]

Army Camps and Excrement

We will take up the second law in this essay. By chance, I began to draft this commentary on August 4, the date of Great Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in 1914. The World War I centennial in 2014 garnered considerable media attention, but one prominent aspect of the so-called Great War cannot be captured in words, and that is the unbearable squalor at the front—the reek of unwashed bodies, rotting corpses, and human waste.

Protracted trench warfare made it impossible to maintain civilized standards of sanitation and hygiene. The typical toilet was a trench latrine dug out at the rear of the line. Using the latrine was not only disgusting but also perilous, leaving the user dangerously exposed to enemy fire, so buckets and biscuit tins often were employed instead, to be emptied by soldiers unfortunate enough to be assigned to sanitary duty. An American physician’s memoir[6] reports an encounter with one of those soldiers, whose informally bestowed title is unprintable:

[Colonel] Burroughes was pointing to the man carrying the bucket of [human waste]. Passersby were giving him a wide berth, as wide as you can give in a trench. “What do they do, exactly, Col. Burroughes?” The answer seemed pretty obvious, but I didn’t want to look uninterested. “Keep the trench clean. Clean as they can, anyway. Men can’t just be crapping anywhere. They use a bucket in this dugout here,” he pointed to the smelliest dugout on earth, above it was a sign, “Rose Hips and Jasmine Lane.”… “The [waste] wallahs—we have two per battalion—carry it away and dump it.” Looking around the crowded, narrow trench, I couldn’t imagine where, exactly, “away” was.

This responsibility of those beleaguered “wallahs”—to retain a modicum of decency in atrocious conditions—corresponds to the concern addressed in Deuteronomy 23:13-14.

Major General Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus, Baron von Steuben

The problem of sanitation during wartime is hardly unique to World War I. Friedrich von Steuben famously solved the latrine problem for George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

Before von Steuben’s arrival, colonial American soldiers were notorious for their slovenly camp conditions. Von Steuben insisted on reorganization to establish basic hygiene. He demanded that kitchens and latrines be put on opposite sides of the camp, with latrines facing a downhill slope. (Just having latrines was novelty to the Continental troops who were accustomed to living among their own filth.)[7]

As recently as Israel’s Six Day War, it was difficult to retain a modicum of hygiene. Yoel bin Nun, for example, describes his June 1967 camp thus:

There were no outhouses: white tape marked areas where soldiers relieved themselves. The orchards filled with clouds of gnats so bold that the men had to cover their mouths when the yawned.[8]

Like the “[waste] wallah”, the “white tape marked area” represented an attempt to accomplish what Deut. 23:14-15 commanded, to keep the camp “holy” and have nothing “unseemly” within it.

Sanitation in the Ancient World

The everyday sanitary practices of most people in the ancient world (of many in the modern world,[9] regrettably) were not much better than those in more modern military trenches.

Biblical Period

Oded Borowski notes that “few sanitary facilities from the Iron Age in Palestine have been discovered in archeological excavations.”[10] In a classic study of hygiene in ancient Israel, Edward Neufeld dryly observes, “The general conditions were not conducive to personal, home, or public hygiene.”[11]

Roman/Rabbinic Period

The situation was not much better in Roman-period Palestine. As Jodi Magness remarks about Rome and its colonies, people without access to toilet facilities “relieved themselves anywhere they could, including in streets and alleys, staircases of dwellings, bath houses and other public buildings, and tombs.”[12]

Excrement and Impurity in Qumran Literature

The bodily functions of waste elimination, unlike the seminal emissions discussed in Deuteronomy 23:11-12, normally do not induce impurity, and the Bible never describes excrement to be a substance that imparts impurity. The visibility of excrement, nevertheless, is “unseemly” and undermines the “holiness” of the camp.

The Qumran sectarians, on the basis of their own biblical interpretation, believed that excrement was impure,[13] so they adopted stringent requirements for its disposal. The rules for the apocalyptic battle they anticipated in the “War Scroll” include a paraphrase and adaptation of Deuteronomy 23:11-15:

וכול איש אשר לוא יהיה טהור ממקורו ביום המלחמה לוא ירד אתם כיא מלאכי קודש עם צבאותם יחד ורוח יהיה בין כול מחניהמה למקום היד כאלפים באמה וכול ערות דבר רע לוא יראה סביבות כול מחניהם.
Any man who is not ritually clean in respect to his genitals on the day of battle shall not go down with them, for holy angels are present with their army. There shall be a space between all their camps and the latrine of about two thousand cubits [about .9 km], and no shameful nakedness[14] shall be seen in the environs of all their camps.[15]

Rabbinic Regulations – Excrement not Impure

In contrast to the sectarians, the rabbinic tradition does not generally subsume the removal of human waste from the camp under the laws of purity, since rabbinic literature does not deem excrement to be a substance that imparts impurity.[16]

Excrement as a Barrier to Prayer

Instead of using purity laws to explain Deuteronomy 23:13-15, the rabbis extended the concept of avoiding excrement in God’s presence to the laws of prayer and Torah study, during which the supplicant is, ostensibly, before God. According to Tosefta Berakhot 2:17 (Lieberman ed.), for example,

לא יכנס אדם במבואות המטונפות ויקרא את שמע ולא עוד אלא אפילו נכנס כשהוא קורא הרי זה מפסיק עד שיצא מרשות כל אותו מקום ויקרא
One should not enter alleyways that are soiled [with human waste] and recite the Shema‘; one who walked into [the alleyway] while already reciting should stop until after exiting the area entirely.[17]

Tying this rabbinic halakha to the biblical verse, R. Levi ben Gershom (Deut. ad loc.) comments that excrement must be buried for both quotidian and religious reasons:

שלא ירגישו בעפוש ההוא במחנה הקדוש ההוא ויהיה כבוד לשם יתעלה. ומזה המקום למדנו שאין ראוי להתפלל ולומר דברי קדושה במקום שיש בו צואה אם לא היתה מכוסה.
So they will not smell the stench in the holy camp and for the glory of God; from this we learn that it is unfitting to pray or to utter holy words in a place where there is excrement unless it has been covered.

Similarly, Ramban comments that the reason for covering excrement is because it ruins the prayer experience:[18]

וטעם כסוי הצואה, שאין הצואה כטומאה שתטמא את מקומה… אבל אסור לראותה בעת התפלה ובהיות הלב דבק בשם הנכבד מפני שהדברים הנמאסים יולידו גנאי בנפש וישבשו כוונת הלב הטהור, וכאשר נעלמה מעין רואה אין רע:
The reason for covering excrement is not because excrement is like impurity and makes its surroundings impure…rather, it is forbidden to see it at the time of prayer, when the heart cleaves to the Glorious Name, because disgusting things give rise to revulsion in the soul and disrupt the concentration of the pure heart.

Ramban’s formulation here makes the rule even more abstract. No longer is he worried about God’s presence per se, but rather about what this revolting substance will do to the person’s prayer when he or she prays to God.

Two Conceptions of Purity in the Bible

While the Qumran and Karaite sectarians assimilate the regulations in Deuteronomy to the legislation in Leviticus, the rabbinic interpreters seem at least tacitly aware of the ideological divide between the two in the biblical material—even in the case of superficially similar laws.

In his brilliant essay, “Purity and Impurity in the Deuteronomic Conception of Holiness,” the late Israeli Bible scholar Moshe Weinfeld demonstrated that while the priestly notion of purity and impurity is essentially cultic, and of “a markedly ritual character,” Deuteronomy conceives of impurity in a more quotidian sense, as “a repugnant and odious condition which a holy and noble people ought to avoid.”[19] This conceptual difference is manifest irrespective of the relative dating of the Leviticus and Deuteronomy texts, which remains a matter of debate.

Deuteronomy’s Worldview: Not Purity but Decency

The sanitary practice in Deuteronomy 23:13-15 is mandated not because it is required for the sake of ritual purity, but because “disgusting things” have no place in any human endeavor—especially during wartime since God will be present in the camp.

With neither Temple nor priests to provide the means of ritual purification, a notion of “cleanliness” in word and action effectively supersedes the particular demands of cultic purity. Decency becomes the norm.

Rabbinic commentators interpreted the law as an expansive ethical obligation to maintain “cleanliness” in the presence of God at all times, even in the trenches (so to speak). This rabbinic reinterpretation extends the law’s import beyond the specific biblical concern with God’s presence in the military camp. Decency in hygiene is required all the time, certainly during times of prayer and study, and even in wartime. Decency entails distancing from everything filthy, from the literal foulness of human waste to the figurative stench of repulsive human behavior, possibly including the act of war itself. To conclude with Ramban,

הישר בבני אדם בטבעו יתלבש אכזריות וחמה כצאת מחנה על אויב. ועל כן הזהיר בו הכתוב, ונשמרת מכל דבר רע.
Even the most upright person by nature will don cruelty and wrath (cf. Proverbs 27:4) when going out to war against an enemy. That is why Scripture warns, “Be on your guard against anything untoward.”

In this reading, the Torah teaches that even the basest details of our lives can impinge on our pursuit of morality and our relationship with God.


August 24, 2015


Last Updated

December 3, 2022


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Prof. Alan Cooper is the Elaine Ravich Professor of Jewish Studies and provost of The Jewish Theological Seminary. He holds an M.Phil. and a Ph.D. in Religion from Yale University and a B.A. in religion from Columbia University. His recent publications include “Some Aspects of Traditional Jewish Psalms Interpretation,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms and “Introduction to the Book of Leviticus,” to appear (in German) in Die Tora in der Übersetzung Ludwig Philippsons.