The story is told of the newly religious Israeli who informs his boss that he isn’t coming to work the next day because it’s “Tesha be’Av.”
The correct Hebrew name of the fast day, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples, that was observed by many Jews this week is of course Tish’a [pronounced “Tish-AH”] be’Av. (In Yiddish, this is pronounced “TI-sheh Buv.”) It means “the Ninth of Av,” and one has to know something about Israeli Hebrew to understand why the story is funny.
Every language has its words and expressions by which speakers distinguish between educated and noneducated, or formal and nonformal, speech. A cultivated Frenchman, for instance, would not, as most French speakers tend to do, say “je sais pas” instead of “je ne sais pas” for “I don’t know,” at least not if he is minding his Ps and Qs, and a professor of English literature would be unlikely to begin a lecture by saying, “I’m goin’ to be speakin’ today about Jane Austen.” Many of us will say “I’m goin’” (or even “I’m gonna”) on some occasions and “I’m going” on others, but we’re all aware of the difference and of what it tells our listeners about us.
In Israeli Hebrew, one of the most common indicators of this sort is the gender of the words for numerals. All Hebrew verbs, nouns and adjectives are either masculine or feminine (as I have observed in the past in this column, there is simply no way of saying “chairperson” in Hebrew), and this is true of numbers as well. If you speak of “nine boys” in Hebrew, the word for “nine,” which is grammatically an adjective, should be in its masculine form; if you speak of “nine girls,” it’s in its feminine form.
From here on, though, it gets complicated. In the case of most Hebrew adjectives and many Hebrew nouns, the feminine is formed by adding the ending -ah to the masculine. One speaks, for instance, of yeled gadol, “a big boy” — in Hebrew, the adjective comes after the noun — but yaldah g’dolah, “a big girl”; of ish ashir, “a rich man,” but ishah ashirah, “a rich woman.”
Yet, although this is the general rule, it doesn’t apply to numbers. In fact, the numbers in Hebrew are downright contrary. In the first place, they are the only group of adjectives that come before the noun rather than after it. And secondly, the gender markers of numbers three through to 10 are reversed, so that one forms the masculine by adding –ah to the feminine. Thus, the number three in its feminine form is shalosh, in its masculine form, shloshah; four is arba when feminine and arba’ah when masculine, and so on
through nine, which is tesha in the feminine and tish’ah in the masculine;, and ten is eser in the feminine and asarah in the masculine. “Nine boys” is thus tish’ah yeladim; “nine girls,” tesha yeladot.
The reason for this odd turnabout, which exists in Arabic and other Semitic languages as well, is obscure and goes back to the prehistory of the Semitic family. A hint can perhaps be found in certain languages of the Cushitic group, a large family in the Afro-Asiatic phylum to which Semitic belongs. There are some Cushitic languages in which nouns have the gender of their adjective reversed when they go from the singular to the plural. Thus, for instance, in Sidamo, a language spoken in the highlands of East Africa, the adjective ko, “this,” is used with a singular masculine noun and te, “these,” with a masculine plural, whereas the order is reversed with feminine nouns, te modifying the singular and ko the plural. Something similar seems to have affected the numbers in proto-Semitic.
If you find all this confusing, it confuses Israelis too. The fact that masculine numbers take feminine endings and feminine numbers take masculine endings has proven difficult for many Hebrew speakers to cope with, so that it is extremely common in Israel, especially among children and uneducated adults, to get the numbers grammatically wrong. Generally, this involves using the feminine form of the number — which is the form that seems to be the masculine — to modify nouns of both genders, so that speakers say tesha yeladim, “nine boys,” instead of tish’ah yeladim, or eser sh’kalim (the noun shekel is masculine) instead of asarah sh’kalim for “ten shekels.” Sometimes, too, the reverse happens, producing a comical exchange like:
Yet, though it is common to confuse the genders of the numbers, nearly all Israelis, and certainly all religiously observant ones, even if they are first-grade dropouts, know that the fast day for the destruction of the Temple is Tisha be’Av. This is why it is so funny for someone fasting on it to call it “Tesha be’Av.” It is a bit as if an American radio announcer were to speak of “the holiday of Thanksgivin’.” There are some times when everyone is expected to get it right.