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.

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