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Customs of Israel

Marriage and Family

Wedding traditions vary depending on cultural background. Jewish weddings are important social events, often including a large dinner party where singing and dancing last well into the night. During the wedding ceremony, it is traditional for the man to break a glass by stepping on it. This commemorates the destruction of the Second Temple of Israel in ad 70. Today the bride sometimes joins the groom in smashing the glass. A ketubah is the Jewish marriage contract which is signed by both bride and groom. Parents are usually heavily involved in planning weddings and paying for the festivities. There are no civil marriages in Israel. All weddings must be performed by a religious authority. Rabbis perform Jewish ceremonies, a Khadi handles Muslim weddings, and Christians go to their clergy. Divorce and other family issues are dealt with by religious courts. Each religion has the right to adjudicate family matters according to its own customs. However, Islamic law allows men to have up to four wives, but the Israeli government only officially recognizes one.

Ties between Israeli parents and children remain very strong, even as children become adults. Parents feel a deep responsibility to prepare and provide for a child’s future. Married children expect to live near their parents or other relatives, and they expect to care for their elderly parents. Families gather together on holidays and for big celebrations.

The father is traditionally the head of the family, but women have considerable influence in family affairs and decisions. Many women work outside the home and account for about 47 percent (2005) of the labor force. The majority of the people live in urban apartments or homes, but 7 to 8 percent live either in a kibbutz or a moshav. In a kibbutz families share the land, work, food, and facilities equally. Work is concentrated on agriculture and technology. A moshav is a small village of fewer than 100 families that cooperate in providing for the needs of the community and in marketing the village’s products.


Israelis eat a wide variety of dishes adopted from many different cultures. Some of the most popular dishes include falafel, which are balls of fried chickpea batter often eaten in pita bread; kebab, meat and vegetables on a skewer; tshulnt, traditional bean stew; burékas, pastry filled with cheese and spinach; chicken soup; and Russian borscht, beet soup. Gefilte fish, a dish of baked or stewed ground fish brought to Israel by European Jews, is popular as a Sabbath dish because it can be cooked ahead of time and served cold. Vegetable salad mixed with olive oil, lemon juice, and spices is a staple and usually eaten every day. Salads usually do not contain lettuce. Chicken and fish are eaten more frequently than beef because they are less expensive. Fish restaurants are common. Fruits and vegetables are plentiful, and fruit juices are often part of lunch or dinner. Milk products, such as yogurt and cottage cheese, are popular.

Orthodox Jews, as well as some Conservative and Reform Jews, strictly adhere to “kosher” rules dictating that only animals that chew the cud and have cloven hooves (for example, cows and sheep but not pigs) may be eaten; slaughtering and preparation must be done in certain ways; only fish with scales and fins, not shellfish, may be eaten; and milk products should not be cooked or eaten with meat or poultry. Observant Muslims do not eat pork or drink alcohol.

The morning meal is usually light. The main meal is traditionally eaten in the early afternoon, except on Fridays, and supper is frequently light. Families are often too busy to eat together, but Jewish families usually gather for the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon meals. Conversation and a casual atmosphere accompany most meals.


Shalom, which means “Peace,” is the usual greeting and is also used when parting. It may be followed by Ma Nishma? (“What’s up?”), Ma Inyanim? (“What’s happening?”), or the more formal Ma Shlomcha? (“How are you?”). When speaking to a woman, this last phrase is Ma Shlomech?

First names are almost always used when addressing another person, once the person has been introduced. This is true even in the military and among schoolchildren, who call their teachers by first name. Greetings are informal, and handshakes are common. Men who are good friends may pat each other on the back or shoulder when greeting. Women might hug and kiss once or twice on the cheek. Respect for elders is extremely important.

Israelis might drop by unannounced for a short visit or call ahead to arrange a meeting. Invitations to dinner, especially on Friday evening or Saturday afternoon, are common. Invited guests usually take a small gift. In addition to visiting in the home, Israelis enjoy meeting at cafés for an evening of conversation or debate.


Motion pictures are a popular form of recreation, and concerts and theatrical productions are well attended. Soccer and basketball are the favorite sports, followed by swimming, tennis, gymnastics, walking, and camping. In their leisure time people read, play backgammon, watch television, or visit family and friends. Israelis also enjoy taking day trips to various places in Israel, going on hikes, and going to the beach.

Holidays and Celebrations

Because the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar calendar, dates for holidays fall on different days from the Western solar calendar. The month of Tishrei—which occurs during September or October—begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, on 10 Tishrei is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when fasting is so strict that not even water is allowed. It is a day of reconciliation, when transgressions are confessed and forgiveness is asked of God. The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time of penitence, prayer, and forgiveness, when many Jews right old wrongs of the past year with family and friends and settle personal debts.

The week-long festival of Succot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, begins on 15 Tishrei. The 7th day of Succot is the last day on which Jews may ask forgiveness of God.

Simchat Torah follows Succot; it celebrates the conclusion of the yearly reading cycle of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and the beginning of another. Two “bridegrooms” are chosen to read the Torah: a “Bridegroom of the Law,” who reads the last chapters of the Torah’s final book, Deuteronomy, and a “Bridegroom of the Beginning,” who reads from the book of Genesis. It is seen as a great honor to be chosen to carry out the reading duties of the bridegroom.

Chanukah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is celebrated in late November or December. Blessings are said as candles are lit in a candelabrum called a menorah, which has places for nine candles. For each of the eight days of the festival, the number of candles lit corresponds to the day; for example, five candles are lit on the fifth day. The additional candle is the one that is used to light the others. While the candles burn, celebrants sing songs, play games, and exchange gifts.

Pesach, or Passover, occurs six lunar months and two weeks after Rosh Hashanah, and celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. A ceremonial dinner, called a seder, is prepared on the first night of Passover. Special foods symbolize elements of the story of the exodus. Passover is celebrated for seven days in Israel, but it is generally celebrated for eight days in most other areas.

Other important dates include the somber Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, in the spring. When sirens wail throughout the country, people and traffic halt to remember the millions of innocent people killed during the Holocaust. Another solemn holiday, Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day), occurs 20 days after Passover. Yom HaZikaron commemorates the soldiers who have given their lives for the country as well as the Israeli civilians who have perished in bombings and other acts of violence. It reminds citizens of the price paid for independence before the festivities of the following day, Yom Haatzmaut, or Independence Day. Shavuot, or the Pentecost, takes place 50 days after Passover.

The Jewish day begins at sunset, which is why the Jewish Shabbat, or Sabbath, begins on Friday after sundown and ends just after sundown on Saturday.

Muslim holidays are also based on the lunar calendar. Important holidays include the three-day feast of 'Eid al-Fitr, which is enjoyed at the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan. 'Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at Allah’s behest. This feast also celebrates the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The birth of the prophet Muhammad is also honored. These holidays are celebrated by the Muslim minority, but they are not official public holidays.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas