Typical Israeli & Jewish customs, etiquette & behavior
The Israeli Style of Communication
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.
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. 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. 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.
Greetings - Shalom!
Shalom is the Hebrew word for Hello. It is also used to say goodbye. It also means peace. Shalom (person's name) is also a nice salutation to use in business letter writing where "Dear" is not really appropriate.
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.
What do Israelis wear?
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 certainly a head covering. 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
Israeli Body Language & Hand Gestures
- You hail a bus 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 hand pointing upwards, your fingers closed and coming together, forming a cone shape and then moving your arm up and down, from your elbow, you are telling someone to be patient. In Hebrew - "Savlanut!"
- As in many cultures, pointing your middle finger, is an obscene gesture.
Rules of the Road & Driving Habits
Again, Israelis are always busy and rushing around. The roads are crowded and drivers are often impatient. They 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 Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday sunset) is frowned upon, 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, 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, doctors 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, not attending prayer services can be found 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 however, punctuality is expected. Call if you are going to be late.
General public services run on time. Banks, the post office and government offices have their own hours. Check before you go.
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 army and girls are often in 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.
Food & Eating Habits 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
You could arrive with a hostess gift of some kind when invited to someones home for a meal. It could be a small gesture like a cake or chocolates. To ease the load on the hosts, you could also offer 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 dishes - this is common and it's of great help to your hosts. You should 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 between 200 - 300 shekels per plate is acceptable. Of course their is no limit. 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 for men and women) a gift of a household item is common. It is traditional for family members to give gifts of money and jewelry at Henna ceremonies.
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 from a very close friend is considered reasonable. When a classmate celebrates his Barmitzvah, at age 13, it is acceptable to give a gift of between 100 - 150 shekels. For a girl and classmate, celebrating her Batmitzvah at age 12, you could give a gift of between 75 - 150 shekels depending on the closeness of the relationship.
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.
Smoking, Drinking & Gambling 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 and smoking cigarettes is 18. The legal age for purchasing and consuming alcohol is also set at 18. All drugs and gambling in Israel, are illegal.
Tipping customs: who to tip & how much
There are no hard and fast rules for tipping. Give what you can if you can, but here are a few guidelines.
- A 10 - 15 per cent tip is usual at restaurants in Israel.
- Tipping a taxi driver is not expected.
- 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 - 10 shekels or more, 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. The bigger the order, the bigger the tip but give what you feel is appropriate.
- 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, and a light snack; a fruit, a cookie or similar
- Appliance or furniture delivery - no need to tip these guys. These stores usually charge around 200 shekels for delivery.
- Packers - moving in or moving out, a 100 shekel tip per person would be reasonable for your Aliyah or relocation shipment container. Make sure you have plenty of liquid refreshments available and a light snack.