Wednesday, August 30, 2023

"Kohelet - A Map to Eden" is now available in Israel!

My book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden is now fully available in Israel!

It is available in many of the book stores in Israel that carry Judaica books in English, as well as on the Koren website:

Through that website you can also see a preview of the first 30 pages. For more information about the book, see my post where I first announced its release

I hope you enjoy the book, and looking forward to your feedback!

Sunday, August 20, 2023

takif and tekufa

This post is part of a series about words from Kohelet, in honor of the release of my new book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden. For more information about the book, and how to get a discount for your purchase, see this Balashon entry.

 A word that only appears in Kohelet is the adjective takif תַּקִּיף:

מַה־שֶּׁהָיָה כְּבָר נִקְרָא שְׁמוֹ וְנוֹדָע אֲשֶׁר־הוּא אָדָם וְלֹא־יוּכַל לָדִין עִם (שהתקיף) [שֶׁתַּקִּיף] מִמֶּנּוּ׃ 

"Whatever happens, it was designated long ago and it was known that it would happen; as for man, he cannot contend with what is stronger than he." (Kohelet 6:10)

(The kri reading - takif - is preferred over the ketiv התקיף. And while this concordance considers the ketiv as a verb, most scholars see it as an adjective as well - either as a compound of שהוא תקיף or as Gordis suggests, a conflation of עם התקיף  and עם שתקיף - "with the One mightier than he." See Gordis, p. 263).

The biblical meaning of takif as "strong, mighty, powerful," is recalled in its modern sense as "decisive, resolute, tough."

The word comes from the root תקף, which only appears a few other times in the Tanakh, all in books featuring later Biblical Hebrew. It appears once more in Kohelet as a verb (4:12) meaning "to attack." In Iyov 14:20 and 15:24, the verb means "to overpower." It also appears as a noun, tokef תֹּקֶף in Daniel 11:17 and Esther 9:29 & 10:2, meaning "strength, might, power". This noun later took on the more specific meaning of "authority" in Rabbinic Hebrew, and today also means "validity, legality."

All of these together - the adjectives, verbs, and nouns - express a sense of strength and power. And there is consensus among linguists that the few Hebrew mentions in the Tanakh were borrowed from or influenced by Aramaic (and in the Aramaic sections of the Tanakh it appears as well.)

Klein expands on this in his etymology:

BAram. תְּקַף (= was strong), Aram.–Syr. תְּקֵף (= was strong, prevailed), which is related to Nab. תקף (= authority). Many scholars connect Aram.–Syr. תּֽקֵף with Arab. thaqafa (= he attained to, overtook, overpowered). However, in this case the base would be שׁקף in Hebrew (Arab. th corresponds to Heb. שׁ). Haupt connects this base with Akka. pashqu (= arduous), pushqu (= hardship, necessity).

His rejection of the connection to Arabic thaqafa is earlier found in the Ben Yehuda dictionary. Despite the standing of those sources, I found others who do maintain a connection (Even-Shoshan and BDB for example.) 

The Arabic cognate root means "to be clever, smart" or "to educate." I think the best parallel in English would be the word "mastery," which means "to be in control, dominant" over both places and people (which is how the root תקף is expressed in Hebrew) and over a a realm of knowledge (in the Arabic sense.)

The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon provides another interesting cognate in Arabic. In the entry for the Aramaic root tqp  - "to be strong" many Biblical and post-Biblical occurrences (such as in the Talmud and translations in the Targum) of תקף are cited. The end of the entry contains this note:

Not in Old Aramaic, where the original etymon yqp (=Arabic wqf, "to stand, withstand") still occurs. This accounts for the later form אתוקף, from which the simplified root tqp developed.

This would make takif cognate with the Arabic waqf. That term is known in Israel as the Jordanian organization that manages the Islamic sites on the Temple mount. But more generally, a waqf is an endowment made by a Muslim to a religious cause, and literally means "stoppage, immobilization," since the donated money or property cannot move from that dedication (similar to the Jewish hekdesh).

Therefore, according to the theory suggested in the CAL above, the root ykp - "to stand, withstand", eventually came to be tkp - "to be strong." 

If this is the case, then takif may have another Hebrew cognate. In his entry for the root נקף, meaning "to go round," Klein provides the following etymology:

Aram. אַקִּיף (= he surrounded), Syr. נְקֵף (= he clung to, stuck to, was joined), Arab. waqafa (= he stood still).

Stahl makes a similar argument in his Arabic etymological dictionary in his entry for וקף, citing Yeshaya 29:1 חַגִּים יִנְקֹפוּ - "the festivals circling round." He goes on to compare this concept of the holidays to another term used for them in Tanakh - atzeret, which like waqf, also means "stoppage." (I must concede that I don't fully understand Stahl's explanation which seems to link "stopping" with "circling", and says that both were likely originally dancing terms. Perhaps he means that instead of moving forward, the root indicated assembling together, surrounding one spot, and stopping.)

Among the Hebrew words deriving from נקף include hakafa הַקָּפָה - "encirclement" (and the dancing done on Simchat Torah, i.e., Shemini Atzeret) and hekef הֶקֵּף - "perimeter, circumference." 

And perhaps most surprisingly, Klein also links נקף to tekufa תְּקוּפָה. Originally meaning "circuit, revolution", since it was applied to the revolution of the sun, it came later to mean "season," and then "period, epoch, era." 

Looking at takif and tekufa in Hebrew - תקיף and תקופה, it might appear that they come from the same root: תקף. That is certainly not the case - the latter comes from נקף, not תקף. But a little digging has shown us that while not siblings, takif and tekufa may indeed be cousins. 

Monday, August 14, 2023

pesher and efshar

This post is part of a series about words from Kohelet, in honor of the release of my new book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden. For more information about the book, and how to get a discount for your purchase, see this Balashon entry.

 The eighth chapter of Kohelet opens with this verse:

מִי כְּהֶחָכָם וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ פֵּשֶׁר דָּבָר חׇכְמַת אָדָם תָּאִיר פָּנָיו וְעֹז פָּנָיו יְשֻׁנֶּא׃

"Who is like the wise man, and who knows the meaning of the adage: 'A man’s wisdom lights up his face,
So that his deep discontent is dissembled'?" (Kohelet 8:1)

The word translated here as "meaning" is the Hebrew pesher פֵּשֶׁר. Other translations render it as "solution", "explanation," or "interpretation."

In his commentary, Alter notes:

Pesher, “solution,” occurs only here in the Bible, though it is common in later Hebrew. It is cognate with patar, the verb used for Joseph’s solving the enigma of dreams, and would seem to suggest laying open a hidden meaning.

Klein also notes that pesher "is related to base פתר" (patar). Patar is generally translated today as "to solve", and is the root of pitaron פִּתְרוֹן - "solution." This is different from pesher which still is defined as "meaning, explanation", but is more commonly used in contexts where the meaning is unknown or lacking, as in "what is the pesher" or "there is no pesher."

Klein also connects pesher to two other uses of the root פשר - "to compromise, reconcile" and "to thaw, melt." Here's his full entry:

פשׁר to melt, dissolve; to be or become lukewarm; to solve, interpret.
Qal - פָּשַׁר 1 melted, was dissolved; 2 was or became lukewarm; 3 he interpreted.
 Pi. - פִּשֵּׁר PBH 1 he disengaged, freed; PBH 2 he arbitrated, compromised; NH 3 he explained.
Hiph. - הִפֽשִׁיר PBH 1 he caused to melt; PBH 2 he made lukewarm; MH 3 he compromised.

BAram. פְּשַׁר (= he interpreted a dream), Aram. פְּשַׁר (= it melted, was dissolved; he interpreted a dream, solved a riddle), פַּשֵּׁר (= he disengaged; he interpreted a dream, solved a riddle), Syr. פּֽשַׁר (= it melted, was dissolved; he interpreted a dream, solved a riddle), פַּשֵּׁר (= he melted, solved, liquefied; he interpreted a dream), Akka. pashāru (= to solve, to interpret dreams). Arab. fassara (= he explained), is prob. a Syr. loan word.

Klein's etymologies often follow those offered in Ben Yehuda's dictionary. In the notes for שרש in that dictionary, it says that the basic meaning of the root פשר is "the release/loosening of a concrete or abstract thing." 

So this would apply to the physical dissolving of a solid in the process of melting or thawing, and the abstract release of a problem when it is solved, or a dispute when a compromise (פְּשָׁרָה peshara) is reached. This is similar to the relationship in English between the words "solve" and "dissolve." The Online Etymology provides this origin for "solve":

late 14c., solven, "to disperse, dissipate, loosen," from Latin solvere "to loosen, dissolve; untie, release, detach; depart; unlock; scatter; dismiss; accomplish, fulfill; explain; remove," [...]  The meaning "explain, clear up, answer" is attested from 1530s.

And dissolve similarly originally meant:

"to loosen up, break apart," from dis- "apart"  + solvere "to loosen, untie"

Klein connects פשר to two more possible roots. One is שבר shever. It can also mean "interpretation (of a dream)", as in Shoftim 7:15. Since the root שבר generally means "to break", Klein writes that it probably means a "solution (i.e., 'breaking') of a dream." But he also quotes the linguist Jacob Barth, who connects this meaning of shever to pesher, presumably through metathesis.

The other word he sort of connects to pesher is efshar אֶפְשָׁר, usually translated as "possible/possibly", "permitted." or "perhaps." In his entry for פשר, he adds "compare to אפשר." But in the entry for אפשר, he writes:

Of uncertain origin. The usual connection with פָּשַׁר (= it melted, dissolved), must be rejected for semantic reasons.
This also is a case where Klein follows the Ben Yehuda dictionary, which notes the pesher - efshar connection is suggested by Levy, Kohut, and Jastrow, but remains unconvincing. 

However, Even-Shoshan writes in the entry for efshar that maybe it comes from פשר. It does sound reasonable - efshar is something possible, "released" from the realm of impossibility. 

Let's leave it as a possible solution - pesher efshari...

Sunday, August 06, 2023


Taking a quick break from the series of Kohelet posts, for an investigation of a special word: sandak סַנְדָּק. Our daughter just gave birth to our first grandchild, and this past Shabbat, I had the privilege of being the sandak at his brit milah - meaning he was placed on my lap during the ceremony. 

It was one of the most special moments of my life, so I thought it deserved a post. 

The word sandak doesn't look Hebrew, and indeed isn't. Here are Klein's definition and etymology:

סַנְדָּק m.n. MH    ‘sandak’, godfather, one who holds the child on his knees for circumcision).  [Either from Gk. synteknos (= foster brother; lit.: ‘a child growing up with another’), or from Gk. syndikos (= one who helps in a court of justice, advocate).

These are certainly the most popular etymologies I found online. The second theory he presents, that sandak  is an advocate, is easily recognized from the origin of the English word "syndicate" ( a "council or body of representatives"). It comes from an earlier word, "syndic", with this origin:

c. 1600, "a civil magistrate, especially in Geneva," from French syndic "chief representative" (14c.), from Late Latin syndicus "representative of a group or town," from Greek syndikos "public advocate," as an adjective, "belonging jointly to," from syn- "together"  + dike "judgment, justice, usage, custom" 
The first theory that Klein offers actually fits the meaning of sandak somewhat better. It doesn't have  obvious English cognates. Like syndicate, it is comprised of syn ("together"), but the second half is téknon - Greek for "child." (The closest cognate to an English word - and this is pretty distant is "thane", but I had never heard of it before.) So synteknos  would be translated as "companion of (literally, "with") a child." 

However, there's a problem with both of these suggestions. The term sandak doesn't appear in rabbinic Hebrew until the Middle Ages, which is strange for a role in such an important religious ceremony. Philologos in this 2006 column after quoting both theories that Klein mentioned, notes:

Although circumcision is probably the most ancient of all the Jewish rites that are practiced today, neither of these two words is anywhere near as venerable. The older of the two, sandak, is a Hebrew loan word from Greek, as easily can be seen from its earliest appearance in Jewish sources in the 13th-century midrashic anthology Yalkut Shimoni, where it occurs as sandakos, with the Greek first-declension, nominative-case singular ending. This is curious, since nearly all Greek borrowings in old Hebrew date to the pre-Islamic period, when Greek was the spoken language of the eastern Mediterranean world.

Presumably, then, sandakos was in use among Jews for hundreds of years before this but simply left no record.

He goes on to focus more about the origin of kvater, a Yiddish word also associated with the brit milah. Today it means one of the people carrying the baby from the mother to the sandak. But originally it simply meant "godfather" and was may have been synonymous with the sandak. (In fact, kvater is simply a Yiddish version of the German gevatter, which like the Latin parallel compater meant "joint father". While the sources I found say that godfather comes from God+father in English, I can't help but wonder if it really just derived from the Old English version of gevatter - gefædera - and the later spelling Godfather was just the result of a folk etymology to give it religious meaning. But let's get back to sandak...)

It's noteworthy that Philologos wrote his column in 2006. In the following year, Prof. Hillel Newman of the University of Haifa, published an essay in the Jewish Quarterly Review entitled, "Sandak and Godparent in Midrash and Medieval Practice." (Thank you to Elon Gilad who shared that article with me, along with his Hebrew summary published two years ago in HaAretz.)

Newman presents the two etymologies we've discussed, along with others, but doesn't feel comfortable with any of them. The article goes very deep into the history, and it's worth a read. But to summarize, he points to the the midrashic origin of the term sandak in Midrash Tehillim (also quoted in a slightly different form in Yalkut Shimoni). It's a beautiful midrash, showing how all parts of the body are used to serve God. The relevant line for our purposes describes the knees:

בברכיי אני נעשה סינדיקנוס לילדים הנימולים על ברכיי

"With my knees I become a syndikenos for the children circumcised on my knees."

After much deliberation, with extensive comparison of various sources in midrash and Medieval Jewish literature, Newman ends up convinced that the correct version of the midrash should not be "I become a a sandak" but rather "I make a sandak" (relying on versions that use the verb עושה instead of נעשה).

Based on this, he suggests that we shouldn't be looking at the original meaning of sandak as a type of person, but rather a thing that the person makes. He offers the Greek word σάνδυξ ("sandux"), meaning "chest, casket, box." He writes:

As it turns out, it is not difficult to find a satisfactory lexical solution to the problem if we unburden ourselves of our old semantic prejudice. To put it simply, we are looking for a word, probably Greek, which could be transcribed into Hebrew as סנדיקוס and which satisfies the sense of the passage: a word for something which one might either do or form with one’s knees or lap to facilitate a child’s circumcision. [....] it is σάνδυξ  of Hesychius which is phonetically the closest to סנדיקוס of Yalkut Shim‘oni. The resulting image is of the body objectified, a picture of an adult cradling the infant on his or her lap during the circumcision in the manner of a vessel intended for holding one’s precious personal possessions. In this way, yet another part of the body is enlisted in performing the commandments.

This word meaning "crate, box" has cognates in an astonishing number of languages, including: Arabic sanduk (which has entered Hebrew slang with the same meaning as well), Russian sunduk, Persian sanduq, and many more. Almost all theories point to an ultimate Greek origin. The Arabic Etymological Dictionary says it comes from the Greek syndocheion (perhaps related to synecdoche - "receiving together"?). Others suggest suntíthēmi - "to place or put together", which would make it cognate with "synthesis."

Whatever the ultimate Greek etymology, I found the meaning "to make a cradle" for the baby incredibly moving (and this was certainly influenced by having finished reading his essay shortly before the brit.) In the past, I had used many of my body parts to perform the mitzvot as described in the midrash. But I had never used my knees in such a way. What an honor to do so for my beloved grandson.

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

holelut and hallel

This post is part of a series about words from Kohelet, in honor of the release of my new book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden. For more information about the book, and how to get a discount for your purchase, see this Balashon entry.

The word holelut (or holelot) הוללות appears in Kohelet, and only in Kohelet (1:17, 2:12, 7:25, 9:3, 10:13). It is an abstract noun, and Gordis notes that it means "madness, mad revelry, wickedness." Alter expands on this idea and writes:

The common rendering of holelut as “madness” (for which in biblical Hebrew, as in the modern language, the primary term would be shigaʿon) confuses this idea; holelut suggests a wild and unruly indulgence of the senses in which lucidity is lost—hence “revelry.”

A different version, הולל holel (but always in the plural הוללים holelim) appears in Tehilim (5:6, 73:3, 75:5).  This has a different meaning. It refers to the wanton, to evildoers. For example:

לֹא־יִתְיַצְּבוּ הוֹלְלִים לְנֶגֶד עֵינֶיךָ שָׂנֵאתָ כׇּל־פֹּעֲלֵי אָוֶן׃

"Wanton men cannot endure in Your sight, You detest all evildoers" (5:6)

There is also the verb הלל, which means to "act foolishly". This appears 13 times, in the books of Shmuel I, Yeshaya, Yirmiya, Nachum, Tehilim, Iyov, and Kohelet. It seems that the negative connotations of this verb affected the nouns we saw earlier. Acting foolishly can lead to both madness/revelry, as well as wantonness. 

I imagine that by now you're wondering how this unfavorable root is so similar to the very positive root הלל - "to praise." This is a much more common root in Biblical Hebrew. The verb הלל with this meaning appears nearly 150 times in the Tanakh, and in Rabbinic Hebrew we find the noun Hallel הלל indicating particular sections of Tehilim that are used for praise in our prayers.

So why would הלל mean both to act foolishly, and to praise (frequently to praise God)?

Before we answer that question, it's important to note that there is one more meaning of הלל. It only 
appears in four verses (Yeshaya 13:10; Iyov 29:3, 31:26, 41:10), and means "to shine." 

Gesenius suggests the following development: From the initial meaning "to be clear, be brilliant", came the meaning "to be bright." Another path led to "to make a show". From this came the sense of being boastful and arrogant  (which both Gesenius and BDB say apply to many of the negative meanings we quoted above.). This led to "be foolish", for as he writes, "the more anyone boasts, the more he is regarded as being foolish." But this same sense of "make a show," when referring not to one's self but to others, is considered praise. 

TDOT (4:411) quotes a few different theories, including:

  • a parallel to the Akkadian alalu meaning "shout, sing, rejoice, boast" which would apply to both the "boasting" and "praise" senses of הלל.
  • going to the root meaning "to shine", the foolish holelim should be considered "moonstruck". (This doesn't address a possible connection to "praise," however.
Of course some linguists don't make no connection between any of the three meanings of הלל (for an example of that approach, see this column.) Personally, I do find the idea that boasting about oneself would be considered negative, but would be viewed positively if praising others (and certainly praising God.) But a) I know from experience that not every comfortable theory is necessarily the correct one, and b) this requires identifying the various negative words we mentioned above as referring to arrogance and not revelry, wickedness, or foolishness.

Regardless of the ultimate etymology, if the negative uses do mean "boasting", I think we might have an example of what we've referred to previously as a contronym - where a word (or its homonym) also means its opposite. Other terms used to refer to these words include "auto-antonym" and Janus word (after the Roman deity with two faces).

In light of this, I'd like to dedicate this post to the memory of Gene Schramm, professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan. I didn't know Gene personally, but he's the father of my friend Rivky Schramm Krestt. Rivky delivered a moving tribute to her father last week, and mentioned that he was one of the first scholars to describe this phenomenon in Biblical Hebrew (see here for example of a citation). I hope to share more of his insights here in the future.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

takana and tikun

This post is part of a series about words from Kohelet, in honor of the release of my new book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden. For more information about the book, and how to get a discount for your purchase, see this Balashon entry.

In the Tanakh, the Hebrew root תקן appears only in Kohelet (1:15, 7:13, 12:9). As Klein notes, it means "to be or become straight", as in its first appearance in Kohelet:

מְעֻוָּת לֹא־יוּכַל לִתְקֹן וְחֶסְרוֹן לֹא־יוּכַל לְהִמָּנוֹת׃

 "That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered." (Kohelet 1:15)

It also appears once in the Aramaic section of Daniel, with the meaning "to establish":

... וְעַל־מַלְכוּתִי הׇתְקְנַת ...
"And I was [re]established over my kingdom." (Daniel 4:33).

As we've noted before, Kohelet uses words that appear more frequently in Rabbinic Hebrew, and were often borrowed from Aramaic. That is the case here as well. The verb has a number of related meanings:

  • to become straight
  • to repair
  • to prepare
  • to arrange
  • to establish
  • to amend
Klein provides this etymology:

Borrowed from JAram. תַּקֵּן (= he fixed, arranged, prepared), which is related to BAram. הָתְקְנֵת (= I was established), Arab. ’atkana (= he confirmed, perfected, brought to perfection), Akka. taqānu (= to be well ordered).

He then suggests comparing תקן to the root תכן.  Despite that suggestion, in that entry he surprisingly says (following Ben-Yehuda):

Usually connected with, but prob. not related to base כון or base תקן.

The root תכן originally meant (according to Klein) "to weight, examine, estimate", and only in Modern Hebrew came to mean "to regulate, arrange, fix" (which would be parallel to תקן). But the root כון (as we discussed here) always meant "to set up, establish" and also has many of the other meanings that we listed for תקן (including "to straighten"). Daat Mikra on the verse in Daniel writes that תקן is the Aramaic version of כון, although without making an etymological association. 

However, earlier researchers such as Gesenius, and more recent ones like Kaddari (in his Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew) do imply a common origin to תקן and תכן. They both emphasize more the Akkadian etymology (over the Aramaic one that Klein mentioned). While Akkadian was a Semitic language, it did not use the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet. So there are times where two Hebrew words/roots, with different spellings, both derived from Akkadian - in a similar fashion to how foreign words are imported into Hebrew today.

The root תקן has many applications today. In addition to the ones mentioned above, we have the verb hitkin  התקין - "to install" (as in software) and the adjective takin תקין - "intact, in order, proper,"

There are also a number of nouns. Two of the most common are takana תקנה and tikun תיקון.

Takkanah originally meant "arrangement, ordinance, ruling", and today means "rule", usually as set by a legislative or executive body. It is the source of the related takanon תקנון - "set of rules, bylaws."

Tikkun has many more meanings. In a different book, The Medieval Heritage of Modern Hebrew Usage [Hebrew], Kaddari devoted an entire essay to the development of the word (pp. 91-106). I will try to summarize some of the most common usages and their histories.

As a gerund of תקן, tikun can mean "correction, fixing, improvement, emendation, regulation." But it has taken on many more specific meanings over time:

  • tikun soferim תיקון סופרים: This phrase has two meanings. Recalling the sense of תקן as "to prepare," it refers to the book scribes would use to prepare when writing a Torah scroll. A version of this for those preparing the reading of the Torah is known as a tikun korim תיקון קוראים.
    But the other meaning of תקן - "to correct" or "to amend" - gives us a different meaning of tikun soferim. In this other sense, it refers to corrections or emendations to a text that the scribes themselves made (see for example, Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 16)
  • A tikun can also refer to a set of readings proscribed by kabbalistic practice to be recited at certain special times. These include tikun chatzot תיקון חצות (read at midnight) and Tikun Leil Shavuot תיקון ליל שבועות (according to the original practice recited/read on Shavuot night, and now extended to any learning done that night). According to Kaddari, these tikunim got their names because of their ability to enact repairs in the "Higher Worlds".
  • Tikkun Olam תיקון עולם - Literally meaning "repairing", "improving" or "establishing" the world, it has been adopted for different purposes over the centuries. The Wikipedia entry divides them as follows:
    • In Rabbinic literature, it referred to "legal enactments intended to preserve the social order" (for example, Mishna Gittin 4:2-9)
    • In the Aleinu prayer, it refers to "the eradication of idolatry."
    • In Kabbalistic uses, it has mystical connotations - "to return the sparks of Divine light to their source by means of ritual performance."
    • In modern times, it has come to mean "the pursuit of social justice."
Yet to bring us back to our earlier discussion, there are scholars who claim that the original version of Aleinu was לתכן עולם, not לתקן עולם. (See, for example, Mitchell First's essay, "Aleinu: Obligation to Fix the World or the Text?") However, as we noted above, perhaps there isn't such a clear distinction between the roots תכן and תקן. In that case, the text might not need fixing.

Sunday, July 16, 2023


This post is part of a series about words from Kohelet, in honor of the release of my new book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden. For more information about the book, and how to get a discount for your purchase, see this Balashon entry.

At the end of Kohelet (12:1-8), there are verses that Fox, in his JPS commentary, calls "the most difficult section of the book. Its Hebrew is difficult, sometimes obscure, and its imagery is enigmatic."

In that section, there's a word I'd like to discuss. It's beyond the scope of this post to discuss the verse (12:3) in its wider context, so we'll just look at the phrase in which it appears:

וּבָטְלוּ הַטֹּחֲנוֹת כִּי מִעֵטוּ

The word of interest is וּבָטְלוּ - this is the only time the root בטל appears in Biblical Hebrew. Its different meanings are reflected in these two translations.

The JPS translates the phrase as:

"And the maids that grind, grown few, are idle"

Gordis ("Koheleth - the man and his world") offers: "The grinding maidens cease, for they are few."

Both of those translations are plausible, since the root בטל can mean both "to cease" and "to be idle." However, as Gordis notes, this word is an "Aramaism" (i.e., borrowed from Aramaic), and so looking at the Aramaic appearances should give us an idea of its earlier meaning.

It appears six times in the book of Ezra, and there it always means "to cease". But when an object or person ceases to act, they become idle, so that sense development is not surprising.

While the Hebrew בטל only appears once in Biblical Hebrew, it is very common in Rabbinic Hebrew. There it takes on a number of meanings, all depending on the context (which is frequently a halakhic discussion). These include "to be void", "to abolish", "to suspend", "to cancel", "to undo," "to neglect", and "to nullify".

The adjective batel בָּטֵל  can mean "worthless, valueless, invalid, void", and the related mevutal מְבֻטָּל is "cancelled, insignificant, negligible."

One interesting word deriving from the root is batlan בַּטְלָן. As Stahl notes in his Arabic dictionary (p. 80), in Rabbinic Hebrew, a batlan was one who didn't work, not necessarily one who did not want to work (i.e., a lazy person). So those batlanim who couldn't or didn't work, for example the elderly, were important members of the community, particularly for things like making a minyan. Zuckermann here complained about how in Modern Hebrew, the word batlan transitioned into "a loafer, an idler, a lazy person." To me this just seems like the natural way a language changes. As an example of that, note the word avtala אַבְטָלָה. As Klein points out, in Rabbinic Hebrew it meant "idleness", but in Modern Hebrew it means "unemployment." So sometimes the use of בטל is more judgmental, and sometimes less so.

What about the etymology of בטל? Earlier linguists attempted to find other Hebrew roots that might be related. 

Steinberg proposed that בטל is related to the roots בדל (to depart, be detached) and בתל (to separate). Since he defines בטל as "to cease," this would seem to imply that the root could be understood as "to detach" or "to separate" from work.

Gesenius suggested that בטל was related to בטן (as in beten בֶּטֶן - "belly"). As such, he says that the original meaning of בטל was "to be empty, vacant", whereas בטן meant "to be empty, hollow."  From there בטל meant "to be free from labor", and then later "to cease."

This is somewhat similar to Klein's etymology:

Related to Aram. and BAram. בְּטֵל, Arab. baṭala, Ethiop. baṭála (= he was vain, was futile), Akka. baṭalu (= to cease).

But notably, Klein does not offer any Hebrew cognates, and it seems to me that those of Steinberg and Gesenius remain as conjecture.

Sunday, July 09, 2023

bitachon and avatiach

This post is part of a series about words from Kohelet, in honor of the release of my new book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden. For more information about the book, and how to get a discount for your purchase, see this Balashon entry.

A word common in Hebrew today, but rare in Biblical Hebrew, is bitachon בִּטָּחוֹן. It appears in Kohelet:

כִּי־מִי אֲשֶׁר (יבחר) [יְחֻבַּר] אֶל כׇּל־הַחַיִּים יֵשׁ בִּטָּחוֹן כִּי־לְכֶלֶב חַי הוּא טוֹב מִן־הָאַרְיֵה הַמֵּת׃

"For he who is attached to the living has something to trust in: that a live dog is better than a dead lion." (Kohelet 9:4)

Here the word bitachon is translated as "something to trust in." 

The other occurrences of the word are in two parallel verses (Melachim II 18:19 and Yeshayahu 36:4), quoting the Assyrian commander Ravshakeh's words to the Judean king Chizkiyahu:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם רַבְשָׁקֵה אִמְרוּ־נָא אֶל־חִזְקִיָּהוּ כֹּה־אָמַר הַמֶּלֶךְ הַגָּדוֹל מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר מָה הַבִּטָּחוֹן הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּטָחְתָּ׃

And Ravshakeh said to them, "You tell Chizkiyahu: Thus said the great king, the king of Assyria: 'What is this confidence in which you place trust?'"

Here, bitachon is identified as "confidence." The same verse(s) also include the verb בטח - "to place trust", which of course is the root of bitachon. 

That root appears much more frequently - 120 times throughout the Tanakh. It generally means "to trust, rely, depend upon." 

However, there are some verses where the root appears to mean something else. This Safa-Ivrit essay does a good job of explaining why, and I'll try to summarize it and provide some additional understandings. 

The author notes that in Arabic, the similar root bataha means "to knock down, throw on the ground." He believes this is cognate with the Hebrew בטח, and writes that this can explain those verses where the meaning "to trust" seems difficult to accept.

He first cites Yirmiyahu 12:5- 

כִּי אֶת־רַגְלִים  רַצְתָּה וַיַּלְאוּךָ וְאֵיךְ תְּתַחֲרֶה אֶת־הַסּוּסִים וּבְאֶרֶץ שָׁלוֹם אַתָּה בוֹטֵחַ וְאֵיךְ תַּעֲשֶׂה בִּגְאוֹן הַיַּרְדֵּן׃

His suggested translation would be something like:

"If you race with the foot-runners and they exhaust you, how then can you compete with horses? If you tumble [boteach] in a tranquil land, how will you fare in the jungle of the Jordan?"

He then quotes Mishlei 14:16 - 

חָכָם יָרֵא וְסָר מֵרָע וּכְסִיל מִתְעַבֵּר וּבוֹטֵחַ׃

And again he offers a translation that adopts the meaning found in Arabic:

"A wise man fears, and departs from evil: but the fool rages, and slips [boteach]."

This explanation is also offered by Rashi in his commentary, who quotes the verse from Yirmiyahu as support.

The author then suggests that we should understand the root בטח as "to lean on something, be supported by something, place your weight on something." When you lean on something, it may indeed descend to the ground. 

This helps explain one further difficult verse, Tehilim 22:10 -

כִּי־אַתָּה גֹחִי מִבָּטֶן מַבְטִיחִי עַל־שְׁדֵי אִמִּי׃

Some translations try to explain the word מַבְטִיחִי as relating to trust:

"You took me from the womb, you made me trust at my mother's breast."

But the Safa-Ivrit essay says this can be better explained by utilizing the Arabic cognate, and could be translated as "you lean me [or lay me] on my mother's breast." Of course, in the abstract sense, this does imply as well the trust that the child has in the mother.

That meaning of "trust" finds itself in other related Hebrew words. The biblical nouns בֶּטַח and בִּטְחָה mean "safety, security." We also find the hifil form in a few verses. The meaning isn't always entirely clear, and seems to mean more literally "make someone trust you." In later Hebrew this develops into the more common meaning "to promise."

In Modern Hebrew, we find many nouns deriving from בטח with specialized meanings that represent much more recent concepts:

  • ביטוח bituach - "insurance"
  • בטיחות betichut - "safety"
  • אבטחה avtacha - "protection, security" (usually used for protecting people, property, data)
  • בטחון bitachon - from the biblical sense of "something to trust in" or "confidence", it later took on the more religious sense of confidence or faith (for example in God), and today has a more secular meaning as self-confidence, as well as security in the military sense, as in שר הבטחון Sar HaBitachon - "Defense Minister."
We also find the more colloquial term בטח betach, meaning "sure thing, definitely." Starting in the 1930s, the Israeli linguist Yitzhak Avineri railed against its use, saying it was a foreign borrowing, with no earlier Hebrew usage. However, this use is very much part of Hebrew today, and has even developed an opposite, sarcastic meaning of "no way!" or "fat chance!".

One potential cognate of בטח is אבטיח avatiach - "watermelon." It only appears once in the Tanakh, in the list of Egyptian foods in Bemidbar 11:5. It has cognates in the Aramaic אֲבַטִּיחָא and the Arabic batich. In Arabic culture, watermelons were so ubiquitous and cheap, that they were part of a slang expression that later entered Hebrew:  “lo <something>, v’lo batich” ולא בטיח – meaning “I didn’t get X, and I didn’t get watermelon,” i.e., I got nothing. 

As noted here, the Arabic baṭṭīḫ is the source of the "Spanish budieca, Portuguese pateca and French pateque, the modern French pastèque."

There are at least two theories of how avatiach might be connected to בטח. The Safa Ivrit article mentioned above suggests that perhaps it is due to the nature of watermelons to grow sprawling on the ground, since as noted, בטח can also indicate being on the ground.

The TDOT quotes the linguist Ludwig Kohler as claiming that the Semitic root means "to be plump, taut" (the first of which applies to watermelons) and also "to be firm, tight" (the first of which implies security and trust.)

Both theories are plausible, and certainly interesting. However, I can't help but end with the very true reservation offered by the TDOT: 

"Indeed, in Hebrew homonymous roots are nothing uncommon." 



Tuesday, July 04, 2023

email subscriptions have been migrated

Hello everyone - 

Just a quick maintenance note: All existing email subscribers have been migrated to a new service,

Frustratingly, I've had to switch email services for Balashon several times in the past few years. Hopefully this will be the last switch. 

If any readers would like to subscribe by email, to the right of the main text there's an option for Get new posts by email. Just fill in your email address there, follow any subsequent directions and you'll start getting email notifications about new posts.

I wanted to get this in order before I start my new series about Kohelet words, in honor of the launch of my new book. Since it seems this is now resolved, I should be able to put out those posts soon!

Thursday, June 29, 2023

more changes for email subscribers

Once again I need to make some changes to allow people to subscribe by email. So there might be some posts related to that in the days to come. 

Thursday, June 22, 2023

my new book - "Kohelet - A Map to Eden" is now available!

I'm so happy to share with all of you that after nearly six years of work, my first book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden, is available:

While it doesn't deal with etymology per se, it does use a linguistic lens to discover connections and parallels between Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and the opening chapters of Bereshit (Genesis). 

It's a genuine page-turner, and shows how Kohelet - often viewed as depressing, confusing, and even tedious - tells a real story, and provides a powerful message of hope. 

Kohelet – A Map to Eden is not simply a running commentary on Kohelet, although I do delve into the explanation of its verses. Rather, think of it as a captivating story. As you read through its pages, you will embark on a journey with me, where I uncover the parallels between Kohelet and Bereshit, and the analogies between the lives of Shlomo and Adam. You’ll then witness how these connections lead to the story of the Spies and how those episodes of downfall find redemption in the mitzva of tzitzit, the Yom Kippur service, and the profound words of Kohelet itself.

It is available on both the US and Israel sites of Koren Publishers, where you can also see a preview of the first 30 pages.

Israel customers can order it here:

US and other international customers can purchase it here:

Those using the site can use the code 𝐤𝐨𝐡𝐞𝐥𝟏𝟎 at checkout to get a 10% discount.

It is also available at many other online booksellers and in-person bookstores.

Also, as a first-time author, I’d be grateful for any assistance you might offer during this process. If you enjoy the book, please consider telling friends and family about it. Even sharing this post will help!

If you know anyone who might be interested in publicly reviewing the book, please put them in touch with me. And of course, I’m happy to discuss the book with you in person or online, or speak to any groups (schools, synagogues, etc.) who would be interested in hearing more about my discoveries and methods.

Lastly, as a chance to further explore Kohelet, I plan on a series of posts where I'll take some of Kohelet's more unusual words and try to give some interesting explanations of their backgrounds. Hope you enjoy!

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

pakach and pikuach nefesh

In a recent episode of his great podcast Streetwise Hebrew, host Guy Sharett reviews words deriving from the root פקח. He discusses the meaning and usage of such words as:

  • פִּקּוּחַ pikuach - "supervision, inspection"
  • מְפַקֵּחַ mifakeach - "supervisor"
  • פַּקָּח pakach - "inspector"
  • פִּקֵּחַ pikeach - "sharp, bright (person)"
As always, Guy does a great job showing how the root is used in Modern Hebrew. However, he doesn't talk that much about etymology. So let's see what I can contribute.

From a quick look at the words above, it might seem that the root פקח is related to vision (or in its expanded senses of supervision and insight). While that is a common connection between these words, that isn't the original meaning. 

The verb פקח originally meant "to open", but and in Biblical Hebrew was always used to describe the opening of the eyes (and in one case - Yeshaya 42:20 - ears). This is preserved in the usage today in the phrases פָּקַח עַיִן / פָּקַח עֵינַיִם  pakach ayin / pakach enayim. Literally, they mean "to open one's eye(s)", but figuratively they can mean "to keep an eye on, pay attention, become aware."

From here the more abstract senses we mentioned above developed, which are related to oversight or insight. (Klein adds that the root פכח - "to be sober" is a secondary form of פקח.)

One other phrase that Guy mentioned doesn't seem to fit this rule. This is פִּקּוּחַ נֶפֶשׁ - pikuach nefesh. It means "saving a life" or "(the obligation of) preservation of life." Quoting Wikipedia, Guy said it literally means "'watching over a soul." That would make sense based on the cases we'd discussed previously. But this is not the case here.

As Avineri discusses in Yad HaLashon (p. 475), the term originates in the phrase מְפַקְּחִין עָלָיו אֶת הַגַּל mifakchin alav et hagal found in the Mishna (Yoma 8:7, Rosh Hashana 4:8). In these two cases it refers to clearing a pile (gal) of rubble (to save a life in Yoma, to uncover a buried shofar in Rosh Hashana). 

In these examples, the verb פקח goes back to its early meaning "to open" - in this case to open up the pile of rubble. But since the case in Yoma refers to clearing the rubble to save a life, the phrase pikuach nefesh took on the more general sense of saving a life under any circumstances. So in Tosefta 16:13, we read that pikuach nefesh takes precedence even over the serious rules of shabbat. 

When Rashi explains that Tosefta (as quoted in Shabbat 150a), he quotes the foreign דיקומבימונ"ט - which is the Old French descombrement - "to purge, clear out, remove". (See other cases where Rashi uses that word here and here). Examining descombrement, we see that it is cognate (although an antonym) with the English "encumber", whose etymology is particularly relevant:

early 14c., "burden, vex, inconvenience," from Old French encombrer "to block up, hinder, thwart," from Late Latin incombrare, from in- "in" (from PIE root *en "in") + combrus "barricade, obstacle," probably from Latin cumulus "heap" (see cumulus).
That "heap" is the same as our "pile" - an obstacle we must remove to save a life. Avineri concludes that today the original meaning of "evacuate" has been largely forgotten and we assume pikuach nefesh only means "saving a life", which is where the mistaken etymology in Wikipedia originated. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

cumin and kimmel

The connection between the English "cumin" and the Hebrew kamon כַּמּוֹן (often pronounced today kamun כַּמּוּן) is broadly accepted. 

Here's Klein's CEDEL entry for "cumin":

Middle English cumin, comin, from Old English cymen, cymyn, from Latin cuminum, from Greek kyminon, which is of Semitic origin. Compare Hebrew kammon, of same meaning, Aramaic kammona, Syriac kmmuna, Ugaritic kmn, Akkadian kamunu, Punic chaman

He notes that the word entered Mycenean Greek as early as the 15th century BCE.

We find the Hebrew kamon twice in the Bible, in two verses in the same chapter:

הֲלוֹא אִם־שִׁוָּה פָנֶיהָ וְהֵפִיץ קֶצַח וְכַמֹּן יִזְרֹק וְשָׂם חִטָּה שׂוֹרָה וּשְׂעֹרָה נִסְמָן וְכֻסֶּמֶת גְּבֻלָתוֹ׃

"When he has smoothed its surface,
Does he not rather broadcast black caraway
And scatter cumin,
Or set wheat in a row,
Barley in a strip,
And emmer in a patch?" (Yeshaya 28:25) 

כִּי לֹא בֶחָרוּץ יוּדַשׁ קֶצַח וְאוֹפַן עֲגָלָה עַל־כַּמֹּן יוּסָּב כִּי בַמַּטֶּה יֵחָבֶט קֶצַח וְכַמֹּן בַּשָּׁבֶט׃

"So, too, black caraway is not threshed with a threshing board,
Nor is the wheel of a threshing sledge rolled over cumin;
But black caraway is beaten out with a stick
And cumin with a rod." (28:27)

These verses also include the word ketzach קֶצַח - translated here as "black caraway". Other translations have "black cumin". In modern Hebrew, ketzach is identified with nigella.

We can see, therefore, that cumin and caraway can sometimes be compared to the same thing. This certainly isn't because of their flavors (which are very different), but because their seeds look similar. 

The confusion between the two spice seeds likely led to German taking their word for caraway, kümmel, from the Latin word for cumin - cuminum. In Yiddish this became kimmel, and in Hebrew it is the popular word for caraway: קִימֶל. (The official word for caraway in Hebrew is the similar sounding k'rav'ya כְּרַוְיָה, which goes back to the Talmud, but I've never heard anyone use it.)

And if you're wondering - the surname of the comedian Jimmy Kimmel has the same origin. He descends from German immigrants whose name was originally Kümmel.




Sunday, March 12, 2023

cadmium and kedem

The chemical element cadmium has an interesting etymology. Here's what the Online Etymology Dictionary states:

bluish-white metallic element, 1822, discovered 1817 by German scientist Friedrich Strohmeyer (1776-1835), coined in Modern Latin from cadmia, a word used by ancient naturalists for various earths and oxides (especially zinc carbonate), from Greek kadmeia (ge) "Cadmean (earth)," from Kadmos "Cadmus," legendary founder of Boeotian Thebes. With metallic element ending -ium. So called because the earth was first found in the vicinity of Thebes (Kadmeioi was an alternative name for "Thebans" since the time of Homer).

It then continues to point out that calamine - known from the calamine lotion used to treat itchiness - may get its origin from cadmium:

"zinc carbonate," also, confusedly, "zinc silicate," 1590s, from French calamine, from Old French calemine, chalemine (13c.), from Medieval Latin calamina, corrupted by alchemists from Latin cadmia "zinc ore," from Greek kadmeia

But lets go a little further. Where did the Theban king Cadmus get his name? 

According to Greek mythology, he was Phoenician, and according to Herodotus, he was the one that introduced the Phoenician alphabet to the Greeks. The Phoenicians used the same alphabet as the speakers of Hebrew, which is why the the two alphabets (names and shapes of letters) are so similar.

Cadmus coming from Phoenicia also likely explains the origin of his name. Many scholars say it derives from the root קדם, meaning "east." For example, in his CEDEL Klein writes that the name denotes "the man who came from the East." 

Hebrew also has kedem קֶֽדֶם  meaning "east." But the root קדם can also mean "be before, be in front", because at that time people oriented themselves towards the east. This sense of "before" was not only in space, but also in time, so קדם can also mean to precede. 

So if this is the case, cadmium and calamine are cognate with Hebrew words like:

  • קָדַם kadam - "to precede, to take precedence"
  • קְדָם kedam - "preliminary"
  • קֹדֶם kodem - "before, previously"
  • קִדֵּם kidem -  "to promote, advance"
  • קִדְמָה kidma - "advancement, progress"
  • קָדִימָה kadima - "forward, onward"
  • קַדְמוֹן kadmon - "ancient"
This last word, kadmon, appears only once in the Bible, in Yechezkel 47:8, where it means "east." Klein thinks that perhaps the original name of Cadmus was Kadmon, but the suffix was changed to "os" when the name was adopted into Greek.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

another email test

Thanks again for your patience as I test the email subscriptions once again.

Since today is Purim, I thought you might enjoy a link to all of the Purim posts on Balashon:

Enjoy and happy Purim!

Monday, March 06, 2023

more changes for email subscribers

For those that remember, about two years ago I had to change the service to provide email subscriptions to Balashon. 

Well, it turns out that service also needs to be replaced. So I'm switching to MailerLite. Hopefully it will go smoothly, but expect a few test posts in the next several days so I can confirm that it works well.

Hopefully all existing subscribers have been migrated successfully, and there's a new subscribe button on the right for anyone who would like to start getting these posts by email.

If you have any issues with the transition, let me know. If you're not getting the posts, and you are subscribed, try checking your spam/junk email folders, and add the sender to your safe sender group.

Sunday, January 08, 2023


What is the origin of the Talmudic word דְּיוֹקָן deyokan? In rabbinic literature it meant "image, likeness", and today, in modern Hebrew, means "portrait, profile."

Steinsaltz provides two theories:
The origin of this word is not entirely clear. Some authorities state that it is derived from the Greek δείκανον, deikanon, which refers to a picture, especially an embroidered one. Others think that it is related to the word εἰκών, eikon, which means statue or picture, with the added Hebrew or Greek prefix d or diyu.

In his Hebrew commentary (Hullin, p. 389), he makes a similar statement, quoting both theories and noting that the second one is an explanation of the Geonim, who claim that the prefix means "two", and therefore the word means a duplicate of an image.

Let's expand on both possibilities.

The first theory says it derives from the Greek deikanon. That word is cognate with the verb deiknynai meaning "to show." There are a number of English words that ultimately come from that root, including these two:

  • paradigm: "an example, a model," from Late Latin paradigma "pattern, example," especially in grammar, from Greek paradeigma "pattern, model; precedent, example," from paradeiknynai "exhibit, represent," literally "show side by side," from para- "beside"  + deiknynai "to show"
  • policy: ["written insurance agreement"], 1560s, "written contract to pay a certain sum on certain contingencies," from French police "contract, bill of lading" (late 14c.), from Italian polizza "written evidence of a transaction, note, bill, ticket, lottery ticket," from Old Italian poliza, which, according to OED, is from Medieval Latin apodissa "receipt for money," from Greek apodexis "proof, declaration," from apo- "off" + deiknynai "to show"
The latter was interesting to me, since I didn't realize the other meaning of policy, "way of management", isn't related and has an entirely different etymology. It comes from the Greek polis - "city, state",  which has its parallel in the Hebrew מדינה medina.

As far as the second theory as to the origin of deyokan, Klein concurs:
Surely connected with Gk. eikon (= likeness; see אִיקוֹנִין), but the ד is of uncertain origin. According to some scholars דְּיוֹקָן is the contraction of דְּיוֹ (= Gk. dyo, ‘two’), and eikon, and properly means ‘a double image’.

The Greek eikon gives us the English "icon" as well:

"image, figure, picture," also "statue," from Late Latin icon, from Greek eikon "likeness, image, portrait; image in a mirror; a semblance, phantom image;" in philosophy, "an image in the mind," related to eikenai "be like, look like," which is of uncertain origin.

Both explanations seem reasonable to me. I'll leave it to you to consider which you consider either a paradigmatic example of a good etymology or an iconic one.

Sunday, January 01, 2023

persimmon and afarsemon

I was listening to an episode of The History of English Podcast, and I was surprised to hear "persimmon" included in a list of words originally from the Native American Algonquin language. I really enjoy eating the fruit persimmon, which goes by the name אֲפַרְסְמוֹן - afarsemon in Hebrew. Those two words are obviously connected, and I know that the word afarsemon appears in the Talmud. So how could persimmon be an Algonquin word?

Well, I decided to check my facts. First I confirmed that persimmon is a New World word:

the North American date-plum, a tree common in the U.S. South, 1610s, from Powhatan (Algonquian) pasimenan "fruit dried artificially," from pasimeneu "he dries fruit," containing Proto-Algonquian */-min-/ "fruit, berry."

And I was also right about afarsemon. However, in the Talmud it doesn't refer to a sweet, fleshy, orange fruit. Rather, it was a fragrant plant whose oil produced very valuable perfume. As noted here, the "afarsimon was considered so valuable that at one point it was literally worth its weight in gold."

Many scholars, such as the botanist Yehuda Feliks, identify the afarsemon with the shrub Commiphora opobalsamum. (Others say it was Commiphora gileadensis). It went by many different names (or may have been associated with various similar plants.) Many of them are listed in the Wikipedia entry "Balm of Gilead." 

Included in this list is the biblical term בֹּשֶׂם bosem, which appears 29 times in the Bible, or the variant בְּשָׂמִי (my basam) that appears once in Shir HaShirim 5:1 . We actually discussed bosem many years ago, when we noted that it eventually gave the English words "balsam" and "balm" - so it shouldn't be surprising that the term "Balm of Gilead" is related. (The variant basam may have been the one borrowed into Greek.)

According to Klein (quoting Loew), bosem and afarsemon may be related as well. Here is his entry for afarsemon:

balsam tree; balm. [According to Löw a blend of Gk. balsamon (see בָּשָׂם) and Aram. אֲפוּרְסְמָא Syr. אֲפוּרְסֶמָא (= balsam tree, balm), which is a loan word from Armenian aprsam.]

Feliks, in his book Plant World of the Bible (Hebrew), in the entry for bosem, writes that while in Biblical times bosem referred specifically to Commiphora opobalsamum, in Talmudic times bosem took on the general sense of "scent, fragrance" leaving more specific words, like afarsemon, to refer to the expensive balm. (He also mentions the Talmudic terms אפורסמא, בלסמון and אפובלסמון).

So when and how did the confusion between afarsemon and persimmon begin? I couldn't find an exact date or a specific person who started calling the persimmon as afarsemon in Hebrew. But it seems to have happened in the mid-20th century, and the general consensus is the reasonable conclusion that it was due to the similarity between the two words. Feliks notes (in 1968) that in Israel there is no remnant of the original afarsemon orchards that grew in Jericho and Ein Gedi. So although afarsemon had a rich cultural heritage, it was available for public use by that time.

I have a theory that may give an additional reason. While the word "persimmon" is Native American, related species grew elsewhere in the world, particularly in East Asia. In Japanese the word for persimmon is kaki, and that is the adopted word used in many European languages, like French, Spanish, and German. But that word couldn't be adopted in Israel, since in Yiddish, kaki means "poop" (related to farkakte - lousy, literally "full of crap.") It has the same meaning in Modern Hebrew. (I've seen European speakers here refer to an afarsemon as kaki, and believe me, that raises some eyebrows.) So there was no way that would be the word used in Israel. So why not adopt the available, and similar, afarsemon?

But this would not be the only creative Israeli take on the persimmon. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (entry "persimmon"), Israelis developed a hybrid of the American and Japanese persimmons, which have "no seeds, no core, and even more importantly, no bitter taste even when unripe." Sometimes called "Sharon fruit", it is exported all over the world, and at least for me, is something I look forward during its season - every winter. It might not be worth its weight in gold, but I wouldn't trade it for any perfume.

** Update:

I just thought of one other reason why modern Hebrew may have been comfortable with adopting afarsemon for persimmon. They already had a fruit that began with a similar sound: afarsek אפרסק - "peach." So for speakers of Hebrew, who never witnessed afarsemon as a perfume, may have easily begun using it for a fruit based on the similarity to afarsek.

** Update to the update:

The great blog Language Hat recently shared this post, and as often happens when that occurs, there are great comments by very knowledgeable people. One of them noted:

The afarsek connection makes sense to me, as I had always (until looking it up a few years ago and finding the Algonquin connection) folk-etymologized afarsemon as a blend of afarsek and rimon “pomegranate”, on the model of afarshezif “nectarine” < afarsek + shezif “plum”.

I completely missed mentioning אֲפַרְשְׁזִיף afarshezif. And certainly that additional fruit name would encourage people to think afarsemon had a similar origin. But in my defense, I did look at a few lists of fruits in Hebrew and afarshezif wasn't there. While I definitely know the word, I guess it skipped my mind. But interestingly, it doesn't appear in either Klein or Even-Shoshan. The latter is more surprising, since it includes plenty of slang and colloquialisms. But as these pages point out, it's a mistake to call it an afarshezif, since nectarines aren't a crossbreed of peaches and plums, but their own fruit. Therefore, they say it's proper to call it נֶקְטָרִינָה nektarina, and I suppose that's why it didn't enter the dictionary (or any of those lists I looked at.)