Treasure Trove: David Matlow looks at the Israeli phone token with Talmudic roots

An ‘asimon’—Israeli telephone token. (Credit: David Matlow)

The asimon or telephone token (like this 1953 version) was how you would pay for a call at a payphone in Israel until the early 1990s.  The word originally meant a metal that could not be used as money. 

The Talmud in Bava Metzia 47b considers the asimon: “The Gemara asks: What is an asimon? Rav said: It is one of the coins given as a token to gain entry into the bathhouse, for which the bathers would pay later.”  

The asimon was replaced by the phone card, and then cellphones replaced the payphone.  The term asimon survives as a modern Hebrew idiom in the phrase “yarad lo ha’simon,” the Hebrew equivalent of “the penny dropped,” describing how the payphone wouldn’t start working until the token dropped.