Stories from Israeli Supermarket checkout counters

A few days ago I went to buy some lunch at the YESH supermarket across the road to where I work. I collected four items and queued up as normal, in the "8 items or less" counter. There was one man in front of me but he wasn't being served. After about 30 seconds the kupait (checkout counter girl) announced that the computer was back up and she began to process the man in front of me. Obviously her computer till must have crashed but having just arrived at the check out I would not have known this.

All of a sudden I felt a rumbling behind me followed by a finger poking me sharply in the back of my ribs. I turned round to see a woman and two men with items in their hands. The woman was poking me and telling me to get out of the way. I had seen all of them queuing up in the counter next to me and told her so. She gave me an impatient look as if I was slightly retarded and explained that the computer had gone down in this counter so they had moved to another counter. However, now that the computer was back up they were entitled to their places back.

I calmly explained that when I had arrived, there was only one person here and had they wanted to wait they could have done so. Instead they chose to abandon this queue and join another. Furthermore, I told them that they were in fact arguing about one minute wait as I only had four items and was paying by cash. Hearing my accent, the men decided to join the fray and began to explain to me as if I was a six year old that it was obvious to anyone that I should pick up my things from the counter and move to the back behind them. One of them told me that if I didn't agree then I could go back to Amerika! I stood my ground and was served to the accompaniment of curses from the people behind.

Israelis do indeed have a very strange queuing etiquette. I think it comes from the incredibly archaic banking system they inherited from either the Turkish or British Empire that was still in use in many banks up until the 1980s. There was a specific queue and a person for every single individual process that could take place in a bank. This meant that in order to complete a single transaction you had to go through the process of queuing up at three or four counters rather like a Waddington board game. You had to get your ishur (a note of permission) in order to move on to the next counter.

I say Turkish or British because I'm really not sure where this system originated. Israelis tell me that it's an Arab system yet it works remarkably similar to the system that was employed (and for all I know is still employed) at Foyles Book shop in Charing Cross Road, London. It claims to be the largest bookshop in the world, founded in 1903.

Even if you were buying a book on the fourth (top) floor, you had to queue up at a counter and when served, tell the shop assistant which book you wished to purchase. He or she would write you out a document of sale. You then had to go down to the ground floor with this document where you queued up again in order to pay. Once paid you would receive your "paid' document. You then had to return to the queue from whence you began and queue up again in order to receive your book which had already been placed in a bag. Anyone having been in an Israeli bank in the early 80s would have found this experience strangely familiar.

It is my theory that out of this terribly frustrating and senselessly bureaucratic banking system came the thinking amongst Israelis that in order to beat the system and come out more or less sane, Israelis accepted the notion that you could actually defy the laws of physics and miraculously be in two or even three places at once. You knew that you would have to join queue C in 15 minutes so you'd speak to the last person in queue C and ask them to reserve you that place. Then you'd reserve your place in queue B and physically queue up in queue A. With a bit of luck you had timed everything perfectly and you could claim your pre-reserved place in the following queues before your turn was reached and so cut the time spent in the bank down to a fraction.

Of course, anyone who comes from a Western country and has experienced standing in a queue, only one person away from being served and then having three people appear from nowhere and stand in front of you, would find this Israeli queuing etiquette completely outrageous and inexcusable. You either are in a queue or you are not! No wonder tourists go back home with the impression that all Israelis were rude and uncivilised.

Having explained where this mentality comes from I am sad that even 30 years after Banking reforms in Israel, Israelis still practice this queuing game whereby if they have two completely separate transactions to perform in the bank they will reserve a place in a queue and go off to deal with the other one. Don't they realise how unfair this is? When I am asked by someone to save them a place in the queue at the bank I always refuse (unless it is someone elderly who cannot stand in the queue and instead sits down on the side waiting for their turn). This always always starts a row. I try to explain why this behaviour is immoral. They look at me as if I've come from another planet. I know that I cannot change the Israeli mindset singlehandedly but I certainly won't be a party to it.

Halachically speaking it is "gezel zman" - Stealing time from someone. You will join a queue based upon your assessment of how much time you have to queue which is based on the amount of people in that queue. A supermarket queue has the added calculation based on the amount of items in each person's trolley. Obviously, faced with a queue that has a single person with a trolley piled high with items verses another queue with three people, each of which only has two or three items, you would join the second queue wouldn't you?

Well in Israel you would fall foul of Israeli queuing etiquette. It is common in Israel to play "the partner" game. This game works by one partner queuing up at the checkout counter with a trolley that has say three items in it. The other partner then proceeds to go round the supermarket doing the proper shopping and returning to the "nest" every now and again to deposit their acquired goodies. So, with a bit of practice they are able to time their shopping so that they finish filling the trolley by the time they reach the check out. The problem is that the "fryer" standing behind the partner game had joined the queue on the evidence of the small amount of items in the trolley at the beginning.

A solo variation of this game is when an Israeli starts queuing up with say three items in their trolley. Then they say to the person behind them that they are just going to get a few things that they have forgotten and to save their place. The person behind now not only has to save the person's place but is responsible for pushing two trolleys in the queue now. The person returns with their hands full of items. They then announce that they have a few more things to get and so off they go again. Sometimes they play this game too many times and you end up the next one at the check out counter with the owner of the trolley in front no where to be found. What do you do with this person's trolley? Do you wait for them? Do you push the trolley aside? You cannot swap trolleys as the isles are too narrow. I always push the trolley through and start putting my items through the checkout, tensely waiting for the person to return and the inevitable screaming that will occur.

Another game is "Beat the Express Line". Most supermarkets have an express line whereby only those who have 5/8/10 items or less can use these counters. A mother and children join the queue at one of these express lines with a trolley full of items. When challenged she will announce that 10 items belong to her, another 10 to her daughter, another to her son and another 10 to her three year old toddler and yes, she is paying on a single credit card!

You have to laugh at their chutzpah don't you? Unless you are the "fryer" behind them who had to catch that bus or make that appointment. Then it's not so funny! It is in fact pure and simple gezel zman and it's about time Israelis changed this way of thinking.
A slight modification of this trick is the one month old pregnant woman. Israelis are all suckers for pregnant women because after all, our children are our greatest asset in this country. She will arrive at the Express counter with her trolley piled up high but announce that she is X months pregnant. Obviously they will serve her. I had this experience one Friday lunchtime when I had to get home quickly and had only one item to purchase. I was stuck behind a woman in the Express counter who claimed she was two months pregnant and was doing the weekly shopping. Should pregnant women be given this right to abuse the Express queue? Well maybe. But then women with babies or someone with more than two toddlers should also have that right. It's a shady area. Definitely, if I was queuing up in a regular counter and someone with a baby or toddlers asked to go in front I would agree. Is there a difference?

An old man is queuing to get on an Egged bus. He pushes past the first person saying "if you knew what I had, you'd let me go first". He proceeds down the queue repeating the same thing until he reaches the bus driver who asks him what exactly he does have. "Chutzpah" replies the old man and goes and sits down.


  1. Been there – done that frequently.
    That’s why I’m so in favor of the take-a-ticket one-line that we now have in many banks and post offices.
    One scenario you didn’t mention – which maybe doesn’t affect you - is the 4 children in one school, parent-teachers evening.
    You put your name on the list outside the appropriate teachers’ doors and then spend the entire evening running around seeing just where each teacher is up to. Well at least it keeps you awake for the many hours you spend there.
    As each parent comes out they’re supposed to cross their name out so you can see which number is inside but of course half of them forget and the other half are in the same situation as you ( multiple children in the school) and so have missed their turn in some places and come back late for their turn.
    I don’t see a way out of this until the teachers organize a more workable method of timing their meetings and sticking to the schedule.

  2. just to clarify - when I said been there done that ... I meant 'experienced that' not that I chas veshalom would play those nasty tricks - they also annoy me intensly - and when anyone asks me to save them a place behind me I say it depends on the person who comes after him - if agrees to let him go in front then fine.

    But if there are numbered tickets then I feel free to go away and do whatever I want until my turn.
    I remember one busy day at the post office I took a number, went off and had the car mended at the garage, came back and still had another hour to go til my turn.

  3. Yes, I had wondered what you meant by the comment actually.

    It's true that I neglected to mention the new "take a number" scheme introduced in banks and Post Offices.

    This system breaks down when people leave the Post Office and come back after their number has been skipped at the counter. The clerk will wait only a few seconds and then increment the counter. The guy with the new number comes up and collides with the person with the previous number who has just walked in through the door having just returned from doing an errend. Then a big shouting match breaks out.

    What also happens is that you get a whole load of people hovering around the counters with expired tickets ready to push in as soon as a counter is free. You of course are the one with the ticket displayed on the counter but you can't get served because of the back log of expired ticket holders. This doesn't happen sometimes or even often. In the "snif" nearest my work (LOL) it happens all the time.

  4. very funny article and so true.


Post a Comment

No Lashon Hara Please

Popular Posts

Contact Reb Mordechai


Email *

Message *