Have exact change

My actual hands, and my actual change. As captured by my web cam, as I couldn't find my camera. Also, I think I need to moisturize. 

This is probably not one of my weightier posts, but it just might make a difference on your next trip to the shuk or even the super. If you want to be Israeli, plan on having exact change.

This is not because vendors run out of change. This is because vendors (from cashiers to department stores) see themselves as professional authorities, and it is their job to make sure that you don't disturb the balance of agurot to shekels in their change drawers. So what if this inconveniences you, the customer. In Israel, the sales person is always right!

Here's an example: today I went to Eden, which is essentially the Israeli Whole Foods. My total purchases came out to something like 90.23, and I paid with a 100 shekel bill. The checkout girl took my money-- something she might not have done if I had tried to pay with a 200 shekel bill. Then I would have heard the classic question, ein lach kesef katan? Don't you have smaller money (i.e. smaller denominations of money)? It's sometimes actually difficult to get rid of a 200 shekel bill... don't even think of using it to buy a 14 shekel felofel serving!

Back in the US, this is where our transaction would have stopped. The checkout girl would have entered in the money I gave her into the cash register and dutifully returned to me a five-shekel coin,  two two-shekel coins, one one-shekel coin, one half-shekel coin, and three ten-agurah coins. (There are technically 100 agurot to a shekel, but they abolished the one agurah coin a while ago, so the smallest denomination in our money is 10 agurot. This means that the price of my wasabi beans and organic pitot gets rounded to the nearest 10 agurot, which always makes me feel special when I get a three-agura discount.) And, ok, technically a checkout girl in the US would not give me my change in shekels, but you get my point. American checkout people believe the customer and the computer are always right, so they don't like to do any hard math of their own.

Instead, the checkout girl looked at my money, looked at the total, and asked me if I had 20 agurot. I fished in my purse, found 20 agurot, and received back one ten shekel coin.

This is a really small example, but I can't tell you how many times this has happened to me in Israel. I'm always getting asked if I have fifty agurot, kesef katan, or smaller bills. Israelis will stand at their cash registers for 10 minutes while you find and solicit exact change from your spouse in the next store rather than give you a lot of extra change.

By the way, if you really don't have exact change, just tell the checkout person that and act really apologetic. They will take pity on you and dip into their stores of change in dire emergencies. Unless you're trying to buy falofel with a 200-shekel bill... then you might starve. What do you think they are, in the business of accepting and returning money from customers? Oh. Well.... still. You'll starve.

Have you noticed the Israeli mania for exact change? Has anyone ever actually refused to take your money because you couldn't pay in kesef katan?


  1. I hate when they do this. I always tell them that the currency I've already given them is legal tender and ask them if they went to school and learned how to make change.

  2. There are no pennies in Israel? Would that we were so lucky. I hate nothing more than when something ends in 11, 21, 31, etc. cents and I have to give a nickel and 4 pennies. What a pain. Truthfully, we American cashiers only like when people have exact change if they can provide it in less than 5 seconds. Any more than that and we could have just made change and saved everyone time.

    This is tangential, but if a non-Hebrew-speaking person asked you to explain what "lach" meant (in the context in which you used it), could you? The Israeli girl leading the Hebrew language-learning group I attend was totally incapable of explaining what it meant and we were all left scratching our heads. (Sort of like explaining to non-English speakers what "do" means in "Do you..." or "he does not..." which actually has an interesting linguistic explanation but generally defies explanation by people who never studied linguistics.)

  3. Hahaha - oh Maya, you are *so* ready to do shopping here in Italy. The dislike for less-than-perfect change is the same.:)

    bryan z: the lach is simply a possessive form - Hebrew doesn't have a "to have" verb, it is expressed with a "to be" verb (or iesh/e[i]n) + possessive. lach = l (suffix, to) + ach (2. person singular feminine suffix).

  4. Thanks mad-troll. I sorta knew what it was, but the question I failed to articulate was whether it was something that could be easily explained, because the Israeli girl at our group could not. (For a fun challenge, try explaining to English-learners why there's a "do" in "do not" and what that "do" means. It's impossible without teaching them syntax.)

  5. I haven't really noticed this phenomenon, but that might be because I never pay for anything over 30 NIS with cash. Nearly every establishment that I frequent accepts credit cards happily.

    However, on my last visit to an ATM (kaspomat) get cash for those rare instances where it's needed, I withdrew 1000 NIS -- and got it in 4 200 NIS bills and 2 100 NIS bills. Since that was totally useless for the scenarios in which I use cash, I stepped into the bank and prompted converted them all into 50 NIS bills. What *is* a 200 NIS bill good for, anyway?

  6. This is SO TRUE!

    I found this post very amusing!!

  7. Yeah, I've noticed this too... It annoys me when I go to the supermarket soon after they open or towards the end of the day and they ask me this... When I'm there in the morning, my thought is 'you just opened your line. You should have a fully stocked cash register'.

    When it happens in the evening, my thought is 'the register has been open now for 8 hours. You mean to tell me there's NO change at all??'

  8. I'm glad it's not just me! And mad-troll... I am definitely so ready to go shopping in Italy. When can I come?? :}

    Bryan, I agree that "lach" is hard to explain. While this may not be technically accurate, I think of it as a "you" with a preposition ("le"), and prepositions are arbitrary in every language. It was really odd to me at first that Israelis take care "in" children (hem metaplim BEyeledim) rather than "of" them... but then why is the meaning of "of" in that context anyway? "Do you have small change" doesn't make sense either, as you say... which is probably why Israelis like to ask, "have you small change" if they're talking English. :)

  9. Richie hit the nail on the head. No-one wants bills (not even bus drivers)... but on the other hand the ATMs give out only bills of 200 shekels, that is the problem!
    Maybe they can make a law that the ATM will give out bills of smaller denomintations??

  10. Such good advice for kids like me, going to Israel alone this summer! It's stuff like this we need to know. Thanks Maya!

  11. For some reason I never have trouble getting rid of my 200 shekel bills... maybe because I tend to use them for larger purchases like grocery shopping. My yarkan is willing to take a 200 shekel bill when I buy 70 shekels worth of fruit and veggies... for some reason he never complains (though he'll ask me for small change so that he can give me the fewest coins in return). I don't ride the busses much anymore, though, so I don't need the smaller coins as much. Maybe use your shekels for more of your purposes so that you get rid of the 200 shekel bills?

    Megan, have a great time in Israel this summer! Hold onto your small bills. :)

  12. i love your blog. i stumbled upon it when someone asked me to describe sponga in my blog! i googled sponga and only your post came up in the context of the art of israeli floor cleaning. i deferred to you and have been laughing at your posts ever since. :) congrats on your one year. mine is http://swirlingthoughts-lsm.blogspot.com/
    - about life as a new oleh in efrat. purim sameah.

  13. Totally totally right!

    I got on a bus once, intending to buy a kartisiya, which is a 10-ride punch card that sells for about 44 shekels. I handed the bus driver my 50 shekel bill and asked for the card, and he told me he didn't have any and then asked if I had smaller change for the 5.20 shekel ride.

    I didn't, and I told him sorry, all I have is this 50 shekels, because I wanted to buy a kartisiya. He said, "I wanted to sell you a kartisiya," and then punished me by giving me all the change for my ride in 5-shekel coins.

    He said, "You'll have lots of change for the next bus driver."

  14. Maayan, that is a classic story! Oy.

    Lisa, I love your blog! I'm kind of scared you defer to my "expertise," though... much as I am the Internet's leading expert on Israeli salad ;)

    By the way, not to undermine my own post, but I actually payed for a 13 shekel item with a 200 shekel bill since writing this post. It can be done!!

  15. Just found your blog and it is Great. Got a kick out of this post because I've often noticed the same thing. But a weird twist on it is that on my earliest visits to Israel in the early 90's Dollars were much desired but NOT singles. For small purchases it behooved you to have singles (it was always very gravely pointed out that change would only be given in shekels as though that were the worst fate imaginable) But if you tried to pay for something with, say, 14 singles a huge discussion /currency exchange would ensue between the shopkeeper, yourself, your friends, other shoppers, passers by etc. -Mike B

  16. But everyone DOES run out of change. The sheer amount I've been told to wait while the cashier had to go to another shop for change is astounding. Israelis love paying with bills, although the 200 bill is kind of useless {unless you pay by cash for petrol}.

    The 'lach' discussion: 'lach' is also a marker of personal feeling/experience. 'I'm hot' in Hebrew would get literally translated as 'kham li': 'it's hot for me'. The {sarcastic} popular phrase אכלו לי שתו לי, for example, means that the speaker feels heavily discriminated {and whines about it}. It's something I really miss in English, the ability to tell how I perceive reality. :)


  17. I know this is an old post, but as an Israeli living in the US I have to comment on how the opposite happens to me!
    Say I spend 25.40 at the supermarket. I hand the cashier a $20 and a $10 and then say, "Wait, I have 40 cents". She thinks I'm crazy.

  18. Hello,

    I am from Sydney, Australia and I am heading to Jerusalem, Israel in January next year. I am so confused as to what currency I should purchase. Today I bought $200 American dollars but I am not familiar with how it will all work out for me when I get to Jerusalem, because it does not equal the same amount obviously.

    In Australia we have dollars and cents, I am not quite sure what Israel has for their currency. I hope someone can help me out, It will be very much appreciated. Shalom! :)

  19. Possibly not quite so extreme, but really much the same thing happens here in Ireland. If you pay for a 10.05 euro item with a 20 euro note, you are likely to be asked for five cent.

  20. Happened to me 20 minutes ago, went to buy a lotto ticket and the guy said to me before i even opened my wallet, "Kesev Katan bilvad" "I will only only accept change" basically. He said this because he knows me. Everytime i go there i make a point of paying with a 200 or 100 not because i dont have change or because i need it, but i have become the opposite of them, i will only pay in large denominations. They have created a monster, the machine is fighting back. I walk round with a pocket full of change weighing me down and i will still handover a 100 for a rogaloch. I am the resistance, join me. Tell your friends and family.


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