In English, the months of the year each sound different enough from each other. Unless someone's mumbling, you rarely have to press - “Huh? Did you say ‘January’ or ‘February’?”
But while “June” and “July” sound quite different in English, in Israel we’re in the midst of the season of confusion. This month is Yuni, pronounced YOO-nee, while next month, Yuli, is pronounced YOO-lee, which are modifications of the Latin Iunius and Iulius.
That emphasis may switch to the second syllable when you’re seeking clarification. Since the “yoo” is the same either way, if you’re like me, you could well find yourself asking, or being asked: “Did you say ‘Yoo-NEE’ or ‘Yoo-LEE’?”
Probably the easiest way to resolve this summertime conundrum is to resort to the numbers Israelis often use to refer to the Gregorian months – not just when writing the date at the top of the page (in accordance with European style: first the day, then the month and year), but in spoken Hebrew as well.
That dentist appointment you’ve been putting off? The receptionist might tell you it’s on the 27th of the sixth. Summer camp? Probably starts the first of the seventh.
Which is the 'first month'?
Using numbers as names (or, as in the case of the months, in addition to names) is something Israelis do every day of the week, when they use ordinal numbers to refer to, well, the day of the week. It’s no big leap to go from referring to Sunday as “First Day” (Yom Rishon) to referring to January as “first” (rishon).
This practice has its roots in the Bible, which describes the timing of the holidays by citing the number of the Jewish, lunar-based month in which they take place.
One confusing thing is that the Jewish calendar starts at different times of the year depending on how you count. If you count from Tishri, the month that begins with Rosh Hashanah and which is popularly considered to be the first of the year, then the Jewish New Year would take place in the first month.
But the Bible tells us that what we now call Nisan, the month in which Passover is celebrated, “shall be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:2). By the biblical calculation, then, what we widely consider the first day of the Jewish year actually takes place on the first day of what Leviticus 23 refers to as “the seventh month.”
Nowadays, while Israelis often refer to the months of the Gregorian calendar by their number, the months of the Jewish calendar are referred to by their (Babylonian) names. If you insist on calling the Gregorian months by the Israeli version of their Latin-derived names (Yanuar for “January,” Februar for “February,” etc.) – even during the hottest 12ths of the year – just be prepared to have a conversation that requires you to keep saying “NEE.”
To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at email@example.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.
Never miss a word! Sign up for Haaretz's 'Word of the Day' newsletter.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now