Grocery shopping like an Israeli

There are a lot of differences between Israeli and American grocery stores, as I learned on my very first day in Israel. I was strolling down the street, feeling all cool and Israeli, and I decided to look around the inside of our local Machsane-Lahav.

By the way, basically half of the big stores in Israel these days is calls Machsan-something. Machsan means "warehouse" (or storage room, as in the machsans on the ground floor of most apartment buildings) and I guess it indicates "cheap" and "big" to the Israeli consumer. I bought our fridge in Machsane-Chashmal (Electrical Warehouse), I passed a lamp store called Machsan-Teorah (Lighting Warehouse) last night, a butcher shop might be Machsan-Basar, etc. Machsane-Lahav means "Flame Warehouse"... I'm really not sure where that one comes from.

Anyway, on my first day in Israel, I strolled into the grocery store (known as a super in Hebrew--pronounced "soo-pear" and short for "supermarket," I guess). A guy standing at the door tried to get my attention as I waltzed in, but I had heard Israeli men tend to be aggressive. Was I going to be the clueless American who made eye contact and encouraged Israeli pickup artists? Not me! I was Israeli! Cool as a melafafon, I strolled towards the bread section, only to see the guy coming after me and shouting... and he had a gun.

Turns out he was the security guard at the door who was supposed to check my purse before I entered. Oops. And for the record, having pretty decent Hebrew when you arrive backfires when you need to convince a security guard that you are a fresh-off-the-plane olah who didn't know any better.

These are some other fun things you should know about shopping in an Israeli super:
  • Be nice to the security guys. If they get to know you, they'll let you go in without being searched. Also, they can watch your little-old-lady-wheeled-cart (post about that later) or your bags of veggies from the yarkan (post about that later too) or your stroller at the door while you go shopping.
  • The grocery store (unless it's a non-kosher basar-lavan-selling chain like Tiv-Taam) will close early on Fridays and be closed all day on Shabbat and holidays.
  • If you have just one or two items, Israelis almost always let you cut in front of them in line if you ask.
  • The check-out lady might not say "thank you" or "have a nice day," but she will tell you that you have only bought one bottle of olive oil when you get a better price for buying two, and she'll wait for you to go get another bottle. She will also attempt to sell you a range of products from dark chocolate to hand lotion that she has sitting on her checkout counter. She will also do this for all of the people ahead of you in line, which means you should be prepared to wait for a while to check out.
  • Buy-one-get-one-free in Hebrew is denoted in simple math: 1+1 (echad ploos echad). Buy two get one free is 2+1 (shteim ploos echad) and is WRITTEN as 1+2... Hebrew goes right to left, remember? (Thanks for a commenter for reminding me of this!)
  • You probably need to bag your own groceries and you probably need to ask the checkout lady to throw some bags up on the checkout counter for you.
  • When you buy more than, say, 200 shekels of groceries, you will be asked "kama tashlumim," which means "how many payments?" If you want to pay everything at once, you can say "echad" or "ragil" (normal). A rumor circulates among olim that the way to ask to pay everything at once is to say "makah" (hit), but when an Argentinian told me this in the checkout line once, the checkout lady said she'd never heard it before.
  • On your receipt when you pay with a credit card will be two lines. The top is for your signature, and the bottom is for your phone number. To be really Israeli, don't write your phone number in this space unless the checkout lady insists. This would be giving away information. I've barely ever written my phone number on a receipt, despite the fact that every receipt contains a spot for it.
I think I'll devote a whole post some time to the differences between food packaging in Israel and the US. What general super shopping-tips did I miss? Have you had any adventures in Israeli grocery shopping?


  1. If you have just one or two items, Israelis almost always let you cut in front of them in line if you ask.

    I absolutely never let anyone cut ahead of me, and if the store employees allow it, I don't shop in that store.

  2. You got it covered, very well.
    Well, maybe we could add always to have a 5 shekel coin or a plastic thingy handy to unchain an agala cart.

    You asked for a supermarket adventure? Here's my worst one:
    Once I bought peanut butter at the big mehadrin machsan super next to Jerusalem Central Bus Station. Back home, I opened it and found that half of it had been eaten. Feh.
    Not to be a fryer, next trip to the city I returned it to the Customer Service desk and said I wanted an UNopened jar of PB. The woman said "OK, just get a new one." I said, "How will the cashier know not to charge me? Maybe you give me a petek?"
    Can you believe? She said, "Just put it in your bag." There was no convincing her otherwise.
    Maya, I've never stolen anything in my life. I would have died of embarrassment if someone had seen me putting peanut butter in my backpack.
    But I did it, "not to be a fryer."
    What a strange store!

  3. Dina, that's hilarious!! I would have felt the exact same way had I been told to do that! I would have probably looked so guilty walking out that I would have been stopped by the security guards, too. :) The 5 shekel coin is a good suggestion! Even better is to get one of those key chains that stands in for a five-shekel coin... I have one that looks like a chamsa. Even better, I can pull it back out of the cart so I don't leave it dangling there (which is pretty dangerous).

    ng, I don't mind the cutting-in-line thing. It's kind of nice... there is no discernible express line in our grocery story (I believe there is one, but people's carts seem just as full there) so this creates a defacto express lane if you're only buying one or two things.

  4. oh, here's a comment from my friend studying in Lebanon, just to prove that everything isn't the same in both countries:

    Completely different here. Supermarkets here usually sell only non-perishables, bread and dairy, and you have to go to the vegetable store to get vegetables, and to the butcher to get meat. While people never speak to you at the counter except to tell you the price, if you look indecisive or lost for more than a second someone will come up to you ... Read Moreand ask if you need help. If you explain you are merely thinking about what you need (which I do at the grocery store), they ask "so can I help you find something while you're remembering everything else?" and so on.

    Also there are random horse drawn carriages all over the place (I've never been able to figure out if they have a schedule.) selling one random type of produce, which is convenient if say, you were walking to the store just to get bananas, and a banana truck comes by. Do you have anything like that?

  5. Is letting people in front of you if they only have a couple things an Israeli thing? My family and I have always done that (within reason: if we only have 5 or so items, we'll politely ask them to wait, but if we've got 20 or so, we'll let them go first). As a cashier, if a customer is taking a long time (i.e. they had to leave the counter to find a replacement item), I'll usually ring in the next customer while I'm waiting for that person to return.

    The horse-drawn carriages in Lebanon sound amazing! We would never have anything like that in the States.

  6. Great post!

    By the way, I every so often see a 1+2 sign and think, "Wow! buy one, get two free!"

    One of my craziest grocery store adventures is here: http://atimeofthesigns.blogspot.com/2008/01/kitchen-tip-i-learned-tonight-at.html

  7. haha... Toby, I've done that too! That's right-- shteim ploos echad is actually written as "1+2"!

  8. I had totally forgotten about the 1 + 1 and the 1+ 2. That was a bit confounding until it was explained to me.

    I spent the first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. This brought back some fond memories...thanks!

  9. re: "shtayim plus echad"-- I actually wrote in one of my blog entries about the first time I went shopping and got soap: "2 + 4" I thought, "buy two get four free-- WTF?" Now I know better.

  10. I think Machsan as part of store names started off as a translation for depot... so I guess it's actually a kind of semi-americanization that went wild.

  11. my favorite line of all time? "cool as a melafefon"-- awesome! :)

  12. >> The horse-drawn carriages in Lebanon sound amazing! We would never have anything like that in the States.

    it's going on RIGHT NOW in the Greek neighborhood of Baltimore.

  13. loved the discussion as I will be there for a month shopping in the shuk and soo-pear. Thanks for the tips.


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