Typical Israeli & Jewish customs, etiquette & behavior.
Israeli and Jewish customs, etiquette and behavior maybe a little different to what you are used to. Don’t take offense if a man does not shake a woman’s hand – there is good reason for it.
The Basic Israeli Style of Communication
There is hardly a topic of discussion that is off limits. Israeli and Jewish customs, etiquette and behavior are probably different to what your are used to – take a few moments to understand why. Israelis are known to be direct and to the point. They will tell you exactly how they feel and what they think. Often foreigners feel they are rude and aggressive. Here is an analogy; a native Israeli is called a sabra. A sabra is the fruit of the prickly pear – rough and sharp on the outside, but sweet and pleasant on the inside.
Israelis tend to speak quickly and loudly even in confined spaces. This does not mean that they are yelling or annoyed.
Maintain eye contact when you are in a discussion with someone.
Topics of Discussion
Discussing your salary, mortgage payments or overdraft with a total stranger is not uncommon or off limits and it is often openly discussed. It is highly likely though that the amount under discussion, is not exactly true.
Unlike in some conservative English speaking countries conversation with a stranger at the bus stop or on the bus or the train is quite common. There is hardly a topic that is off limits; you may be scolded about your behavior or you may even be given some parental advice.
- Thousands of Israelis use the public transport system every day, find out more about local bus etiquette
The fruit and vegetable market (shuk) is crowded and everyone is rushing around and even more so on Friday afternoons prior to the Sabbath and the weekend. You will probably experience some pushing and shoving. It is not considered rude. If you stand by and let everyone through, you will stand and wait the entire day. Saying “excuse me, please” does not always work either.
Jewish and Hebrew Greetings. What does Shalom mean?
Shalom is the Hebrew word for ‘Hello’. It is also used to say goodbye. It also means peace.
Shalom + the person’s name, is a nice salutation to use in business letter writing where “Dear” is not really appropriate.
Shalom is also a Jewish first name and surname.
When greeting someone for the first time a handshake is appropriate, both in business and social settings.
According to Jewish law it is forbidden for any Jewish man (i.e a boy over the age of thirteen) to touch a woman – except his wife. Similarly, it is forbidden for any woman to touch a man other than her own husband. This law is mostly practiced in religious households only. If you have just met a religious person and are unsure of their level of observance, wait a moment. If it is okay, the man or woman will extend their hand.
In the secular community you can greet a close friend by touching their arm or shoulder lightly and kissing them on both cheeks. It is not uncommon for men to greet other men in this way.
Religious Clothing Traditions
Different Jewish groups have different clothing customs and standards. You can identify an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man quite easily. He is likely to be wearing a dark suit and a head covering (a hat or yarmulke (Heb:kippah) – skullcap). Religiously observant women also keep their heads covered.
Some members of the Muslim and Druze communities can still be seen in traditional and conservative dress. An in-depth explanation on clothing, dress codes and customs
Understanding Hand Gestures, Body Language & Non-verbal Communication
- You hail a bus at the bus stop by standing and facing the bus and pointing your index finger down toward the road.
- With your fingers open and hand pointing upwards and twisting your palm at the wrist, back-and-forth, a few times, you are actually asking “what do you think you are you doing?” or in Hebrew – “Ma yeish?”
- With your hands and fingers pointing upwards, keep your fingers closed and coming together to form a cone shape and then move your arm up and down from your elbow. This gesture tells someone to be patient. In Hebrew – “Savlanut!”
- As in many cultures, pointing your middle finger, is an obscene gesture.
Rules of the Road & Israeli Driving Habits
Israelis are always busy and rushing around. The roads are crowded and drivers are often impatient especially during the hot summer months. Israeli drivers will hoot, shout and make hand gestures. They will overtake if you are going too slow and will also overtake in inappropriate places, where you least expect it, if they can get away with it (like on the shoulders – completely illegal of course).
Driving in some ultra-orthodox suburbs on the Jewish Sabbath (Friday evening sunset to Saturday sunset) is frowned upon and the roads my be closed and blocked off to traffic.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement is not a joyous festival, it is a fast day and is considered a day of mourning. For the most part, in Israel, out of respect, people do not drive on the roads at all unless there is some kind of medical emergency. Ambulances are allowed on the roads, medical staff who are on hospital duty and taxis are also allowed on the roads but have to display a special sign in the windscreen of their vehicle. On this day, young children, who are not obligated to attend prayer services can be found playing in the streets riding bicycles, scooters, skateboards and roller-blades.
Israelis are very relaxed with time in social settings. At a wedding or similar type of function, showing up half an hour after the time specified on the invitation, is perfectly acceptable. In fact, being late is almost expected. The actual wedding ceremony usually takes place an hour after the arrival time indicated on the invitation.
In business or job interviews punctuality is expected. Call if you are going to be late.
If your repairman, plumber, electrician etc., arrives on time, then you have found a gem. Patronize him forever and recommend him to your friends.
Israeli youth tend to go out in the late evening hours especially on Friday nights at 10 or even 11pm after the Sabbath eve, family dinner.
Equality and Sharing
In Israel, men and women are considered equals. Boys and girls serve in the Israel Defense Force and girls are often in active fighting units that might generally be considered a man’s territory. An equal job opportunity law exists in Israel.
When both parents are working in full time positions, household chores and responsibilities should be shared.
Eating Habits & Food in Israel
When you are invited to an Israeli home for a meal, you are likely to be confronted with a mountain of traditional food. After the meal, you hosts may serve a variety of roasted nuts, salted sunflower, pumpkin and other seeds. It is not considered bad manners to crack these between your teeth and then spit out the shells into an available receptacle. You will be surprised how many nuts and seeds an Israeli family can consume after a meal. In Hebrew these snacks are called ‘pitzuchim’ – פיצוחים
Gift Giving Customs in Israel
When invited to someone’s home for a meal, you could arrive with a hostess gift of some kind. It could be a small gesture like flowers, cake or chocolates. You might want to consider easing the load on the hosts by offering to prepare part of the meal; a salad or desert.
If you are invited for a meal on one of the main Jewish religious festivals and High Holidays, it is customary to bring a substantial gift. Your hosts may even ask you to prepare one of the main dishes – this is common and it’s of great help to your hosts. Make sure you know how many guests there will be and make a quantity that is sufficient for all the guests.
When you are invited to a friend’s wedding, and decide to gift money, it is considered appropriate to cover the cost of your plate plus a bit extra. A minimum of 250-300 shekels per plate is acceptable. Of course there is no limit to the size of the gift you wish to give.
If you are attending a morning wedding (usually only Friday morning), it is acceptable to give slightly less money than for an evening event.
Wedding registries in Israel are almost unheard of.
If you are invited to an engagement party (still fairly common in the Anglo community) or Henna Ceremony (a Moroccan custom, kind of like a bridal shower held a few days before the wedding attended by both men and women) a gift of a household item is common. At Henna ceremonies it is traditional for family members to give gifts of money and jewelry.
Each Hebrew letter has a numerical value. The word “Chai” or Life, has a numerical value of 18. When giving a money gift it is also traditional and significant to give multiples of 18. So a symbolic gift could be 180 shekels (10 x 18) rather than rounded off at 200.
If you are invited to a Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah, 250 shekels (or more) from a close friend is considered reasonable. Relatives will give more. When a classmate celebrates his Barmitzvah, at age 13, it is acceptable to give a gift of around 200 shekels. For a girl and classmate, celebrating her Batmitzvah at age 12, you could give a gift 150 shekels or more.
You will also find that in the more affluent cities and towns in Israel, it is common to give money gifts larger than the amounts listed here.
Of course these rules are not law – they are just meant to guide you . If you prefer to give something other than money consider purchasing a gift from a department store where the gift can be exchanged. Exchanging an inappropriate gift is not considered bad manners. Give what you can and it will be appreciated.
If a friend asks you what kind of gift you would like, consider suggesting that they make a donation to a worthy cause instead. It’s an ideal opportunity to donate to Israel’s needy or hungry, youth at risk, the holocaust survivors and many other worthy causes.
A gift that touched me deeply was that of a client who planted a tree, in a JNF forest, in memory of my deceased mother.
Smoking, Drinking, Drugs & Gambling Laws in Israel
Smoking in most public placed is banned. There are separate smoking and non-smoking areas in most restaurants. The legal age for purchasing cigarettes is 18.
The legal age for purchasing and consuming alcohol is also set at 18.
Narcotic drugs are illegal.
There are no casinos in Israel. There is a general ban on gambling in Israel with two exceptions; sports betting and the national lottery (Mifal HaPayis)
Tipping Guide – Who do you tip and how much?
There are no hard and fast rules for tipping. Tipping is at your own discretion; give what you can if you can, but here are a few guidelines.
A 10 – 15 per cent tip for the waiter or server is usual at restaurants in Israel. Check your bill – some restaurants include a service charge in the bill and this could also be 10% or 15%. Some restaurants allow you to add the tip to your credit card. While this is convenient, like in many countries that offer this, the tip might go into the coffers of the management rather than to the waiters and servers.
It is acceptable to tip the person who washes your hair at the hair salon 5 or 10 shekels unless it is the owner him/herself.
If you are having your groceries delivered, even-though you are paying for the delivery, it is acceptable to give the delivery person a tip – 5-10 shekels is our suggestion. Accessibility to your home and size of delivery would influence the size of the tip.
Take-away food delivery people are also tipped. Give what you feel is appropriate. Here 5-10 NIS is also acceptable
No need to tip the tradesman’s assistant; the plumber, the electrician etc., but do offer someone who is working in your home something to drink especially in hot weather. Offering a light snack; a fruit, a cookie or similar is also appreciated especially if the tradesman needs to spend a few hours in your home.
Tipping hotel staff and tour guides – use your own discretion in these circumstances.
Appliance or furniture delivery – no need to tip these guys unless they have done something extra special for you. Appliance and furniture stores usually charge around 200 shekels for delivery of large items which is added to your invoice upon purchase.
Packers – moving in or moving out, a 100 shekel tip per person would be a generous tip for your Aliyah or relocation shipment or container. Unloading could take a few hours so make sure you have plenty of liquid refreshments available and a light snack to offer them.
Bottom line – in any situation, if you feel the service you have received is worthy of a tip, then feel free to do so.