It is likely that about now, you are wandering among the supermarket shelves preparing for Passover, and spending your time looking for dish soap, floor shampoo, and a delicately perfumed degreaser.

If you had made a list of cleaning products a few hundred years ago it would have looked (and smelled…) very different. Your shopping cart would have been filled with various substances including oil, vinegar, beans, bran, black pepper, animal fat, saliva, urine, sulfur, salt, sand and more.

So, take a cart and let’s go shopping.

Anyone who has visited the City of David knows the story of Jeremiah who was thrown into the pit. In one of the rebukes, Jeremiah turns to the residents of Jerusalem and says to them: “For if you wash with “netter” and use much soap, your iniquity is stained before Me, says the Lord God.“ (Jeremiah 2:22). The identification of “netter” is uncertain, but it is likely that it is sodium salt [“natran”] that is found in nature and the most common substance that can be found is the cooking salt we all know. The identification of the “borit” [soap] is more problematic, and apparently it is a substance extracted from plants, perhaps the Vaccaria plant that is blooming around this time of year.

We will now move onto the oils department and add a bottle of olive oil. The many olive trees that grew in our area produced oil that was also used to lubricate the body and remove dirt from it. Later it was upgraded by adding a kind of perfume, what is known by the Sages as “evening oil”; this was used by the rich to lubricate their hands at the end of the meal.

If you are already in the area, reach for the nearby shelves and pick up a bottle of vinegar. Vinegar is referred to by the 13th-14th century French Rabbi, Levi Ben Gershon (Gersonides) as an excellent substance for cleaning fruit stains from clothes, and its strong smell also removes a musty smell from clothes. Later, Rabbi Haim Vital also recommended it for cleaning clothes, and stated that it was better with the addition of lemon juice.

In the grains department you will find the garden bean that is still available today. In ancient times they would chew the bean and place its pulp on clothes stains to clean them. Near it, you will find the wheat bran which appear in the sources as a cleansing agent for the body when bathing by rubbing with water.

The next bag we will take contains grayish black plant ash. The ash of plants was already known thousands of years ago among the Hittites and was called “ashlag” by the Sages. It was very useful for cleaning the hands when it was mixed with water, but also for cleaning dishes, and later, it was also used as a washing powder. If the stain has not yet been removed, you can try the powder of the Cyclamen bulbs that bloom this season, and, like the villagers in the olden days, you can use it as a foaming agent for clothes.

Moving on to the spice department. In order to improve the unpleasant odors of the cleaning materials, Babylonian Talmud states that they added frankincense, black pepper, myrrh and other plant perfumes to the cleaning materials. Sometimes they were used without a cleaning agent, and it was probably the rubbing action that removed the dirt.

From here, we move on to the meat department. Here, we will add a respectable chunk of animal fat to the cart. In Greece two thousand years ago, they discovered that animal fat can be a good base for soap, and over the years, during the process of its preparation, they added different substances to it including ash, water, lime and salt. This source also created halachic problems because many times the source of the fat was unclean (non-kosher) animals and a bigger problem: in order to know if the mixture was ready the artists had to taste it.

And hence to the least pleasant department.. Among the other substances used for cleaning stains, the Mishnah mentions saliva as one way of removing stains from clothes. However, a more common substance was urine, since one of its components is ammonia. In Greece and Rome, urine was used for washing purposes, and it is mentioned in the words of the Sages as a substance recommended for removing stains. Due to the demand for laundry supplies, it was a traded substance, and was so common that the emperor Vespasian levied a special tax on the sale of urine.

And if you are already in the parking lot…

Before driving home, bend down and fill a sandbag from the edge of the asphalt… Sand was also used to clean and scrub dishes and silverware in ancient times… Additionally, when bathing, they rubbed their hair with it as an available and cheap cleanser.

Now that you are loaded with all these strange and fragrant products, we can only hope that you are let into the house…

Chag Sameach!

Reporter: Zvi Goldweg, tour guide

Based on Avraham Ofir Shemesh’s article, Article 17, 5766.