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Things that are weird in Israel #15: Tens (and tens of tens)


Know why I was so excited last week?

My sister sent me tens of packets of Starbucks Instant Coffee

It’s true!  Tens of them!

Which of course, is also totally bizarre.


I said something about “tens” of something to Akiva the other day and he said “Tens… of what?”

Because in English, we only say “tens” when we’re about to say “of millions.”  And follow it, usually, with “of dollars.”

Despite ostensibly switching to the metric system tens of years ago, Canada has not officially gone over to a metric mentality. 

A truly metric mindset would have no trouble acknowledging the fact that… dozens do NOT make our life easier.  Dozens make things harder and more complicated.

If you think about it, a “dozen” is just about the most counterintuitive number.   Very few of us have a dozen fingers… though I tried harder than most of my parents, one of my kids having been born with eleven.

Dozens just don’t fit inside our brain neatly, the way tens do.

Twelves don’t make any more sense than any of the numbers that follow.  And they make a good deal LESS sense than tens.

Which is why, here in Israel, when multiples of things happen, they happen not in dozens (unless you’re buying eggs), but in TENS – עשרות (asarot).

When you learned times tables as a kid, how far did you learn them to?

I had to learn them all the way up to 12 x 12.  As a kid, I didn’t question it, but now that I’m an adult, I can’t help asking why. 

Okay, sure, it’s helpful to know 12 x 12 = 144 without having to stop and do it the long way… but why stop at 12?  Why not teach kids that 13 x 13 = 169, and all the other times tables up to 20?

In Naomi Rivka’s school here, they stop at 10.  Because once you know the first 10, you can pretty much figure things out. 

(Yes, I DO know that 12s are useful for clock math.  So there.  I’m going to go back to pretending I don’t know that now.  In general, if you know 10 and you know 2, you can figure out 12.)

There is a word for dozen in Hebrew, of course.  Not just the awkward שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר (shnaym-asar=“two-ten”) of the standard counting, but also the easy-to-say תְּרֵיסָר (traysar), which comes from the Aramaic words for twelve.

Still – you just don’t hear these tossed around in dozens of instances… like we do with “dozens” in English.  Morfix translates the phrase “a dime a dozen,” rather prosaically, as נָפוֹץ (nafotz=common).

Just Googling the word “asarot” gives away how very common it is, and in how many ways it’s used every single day here.  When you plug the word “asarot” into Google Translate, it automatically changes it to “dozen,” to make it culturally more appropriate for English speakers – if less numerically accurate:

  • עשרות הרוגים במריופול – dozens killed in Mariopol (where is this?)
  • כדי להוסיף עשרות שלמות למספר דו ספרתי - to add dozens of two-digit whole numbers (why?)
  • בנוסף הוזמנו עשרות תלמידים לבדיקות שתן בהפתעה- dozens of additional students were invited to surprise urine tests (whee!)

I’ve been noticing the word in every possible context since I first discovered this just a few weeks ago (I’m a slow learner).  In most cases, it’s just a technicality.  Like the difference between metres and yards, it doesn’t make a huge practical difference. 

Tens or dozens of soldiers killed, or students urine-tested… ?  Doesn’t really matter.  I really don’t need to know.

But one ad jumped out at me over Shabbos that nearly made me weep.  There’s a picture of a baby with Down Syndrome with a gift receipt attached to its wrist.  And the headline:  “Don’t exchange the gift you’ve received.” 


Then, there’s the heartbreaking statistic:  “Tens of babies born with Down Syndrome are abandoned every year in hospitals.”


And I can’t help thinking that when it comes to eggs, it might not make a huge difference… but when you’re talking about babies, every single one is a tragedy.

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה

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