Your definitive guide to the unwritten rules of frum life
The mental load of making sure you say and do the right thing at the right time is a heavy one. We get that. That’s why we’ve prepared this primer: a starting point to help you navigate those awkward “who can I ask” situations and give you the confidence to do the right thing on the spot. For the scenarios we haven’t covered here, well, remember to treat others as if your mother is watching. (And bear in mind that truly classy people would never tell others how to behave, so why are you taking advice from us anyway?)
Service Providers and Babysitters
Do I tip the delivery guy?
Yes, and these days, delivery apps really make this easy to do and easy to cop out on. That minimum wage driver is saving you considerable time and energy, so there’s no reason he should suffer because UberEats charges $30 in fees for your $20 salad. Furniture deliveries and the like should get a cash tip — you know in advance that they’re coming, so get to an ATM before if necessary.
My kid sees a speech therapist once a week in school. Do I need to include her on my Chanukah gift list?
Yes, especially if your child is receiving free services and you’re not paying her directly. No, if your child is just the vessel for meaningless per diem payments that she’s getting for providing specialized babysitting services.
I want to give all of my kids’ teachers end-of-year presents. I want to be the sort of person who models hakaras hatov, but when you add up assistants and biur tefillah teachers and gym class, it’s eight teachers for each of my five kids. Help!
Every single teacher deserves, at the very least, a nice thank-you note which includes something less generic than, “Thanks for giving Raizy a great year!” If you can afford it, buy gifts for your children’s main teachers — rebbe, mechaneches, any teacher they have twice a week or more that they connected to. First choice should be money, everything else is tied for second place.
How much should I pay my babysitter?
Considering that a good babysitter is the single most useful tool in a mother’s kit, err on the side of you-need-them-more-than-they-need-you.
You could ask her when you hire her, but if she doesn’t have a number in mind, do some due diligence and find out the going rate in your neighborhood. Be extra generous if the kids are awake and need to be entertained.
If your babysitter is a family member who won’t accept money, buy her something thoughtful to show that you aren’t taking her for granted — if you can afford to spend what you would have spent on a babysitter, great, otherwise, spending less is okay if you include a nice note.
Do babysitter pay rates vary by night/day?
Usually not, but you should always ask before hiring. Overnight babysitters should be paid per hour the same way a standard babysitter is, unless you agree to a flat fee beforehand.
What Works in the Workplace
Can I text a coworker/business associate at night?
Is it an emergency, i.e., something she’d be glad you broke the work-life balance bubble to tell her? Otherwise, save it for business hours.
If I’m at work and my coworker hangs up the phone from a very heated conversation, am I allowed to ask what it was all about?
You can, but at the risk of your co-workers thinking you’re annoying and nosy. Make it easier by always being the first to share what the crazy customer on the phone said to her husband while she was talking to you, setting the stage for them to one-up your story.
Do I need to give mishloach manos to all of my employees?
How do you let your chatty coworker know you need to get back to work?
Listen to her story for a couple of minutes and show genuine interest — maintain eye contact, smile, and provide amused or outraged noises in the appropriate places. Then say something like, “This sounds like my kind of story! I need to finish this email before I lose my train of thought, but I’m coming back at my break to hear the rest of it!”
Events and Simchahs
I was invited to an evening event. Is it rude to reach out to the hostess to ask if she’ll be serving milchig? I need to know if I can nosh on my kids’ supper.
You can’t ask. Either nosh enough to tide you over for the night, or hold back and wait for the simchah. The good news is that meat prices are about to make this question obsolete.
What is a socially acceptable amount of food to take when everyone is sharing?
At the first go-round, a small enough amount that everyone can have some (divide roughly equally). Once you’re up to seconds, as much as you would like.
How close to Shabbos can I invite myself for a meal if I am:
A married sibling with a family
Tuesday evening under ideal circumstances, up to Friday morning in case of emergency.
A seminary girl
A closely related seminary girl
Wednesday evening. Close relatives don’t appreciate being your plan C.
A bochur learning in Eretz Yisrael
An old friend who is “going to be in the area”
“Going to be in the area” is usually not a Friday afternoon surprise. As soon as you make travel plans, drop a text.
A single sibling
Three minutes before candlelighting, but know that you’re making your own bed.
If someone asked if they can borrow my guestroom for Shabbos, and their guests are still there on Sunday mid-afternoon, what should I do?
Feel free to text the neighbor who asked for the accommodations, and ask her until when her guests plan on staying in your house. Create a pretext for your question which can range anywhere from yichud issues to you going out of town. Tell them what lovely guests they were, whether or not it’s true.
Do I have to invite my parents’ good friends/mechutanim to every simchah I make?
If your budget/space allows for it, it’s very nice to invite friends of your grandparents, parents, and in-laws — this is their nachas, and it’s a privilege to be the ones giving it to them. You should also make sure to have noise-cancelling headphones and strobe-blocking sunglasses on hand for anyone over 40.
We’re at my in-laws’ for Yom Tov with other siblings-in-law. Who gets the private bathroom?
The oldest sibling gets the en suite bathroom, unless there’s a kimpeturin present. Other exceptions may apply, such as: you drove in from out of town and will be there long before and after everyone else, your husband is the favorite son-in-law, etc.
Must I attend the simchahs of my mechutanim’s kids? If I don’t attend, should I send a gift?
Much like any simchah, you don’t have any obligation, unless of course you’d like to maintain the friendship. In that case, you do. If you can’t, sending a gift is always nice.
Is it okay to ask if my married child can come along to my sister who invited us for Shabbos?
Is your sister the kind of hostess who makes a few rolls of gefilte fish, a large pot of chicken soup, and a great big cholent and calls it a day? In that case, sure! If there is a chance that any courses will be served plated, better not.
Can I invite some siblings but not others to my bungalow?
You know your family; short of those who are estranged, you’re obligated to extend an invitation on an equal opportunity basis. If you can’t invite them all, don’t invite any.
If a guest asks what she should bring for a seudah, how many rounds of polite demurral before I give an assignment?
A wise woman told us this: Guests should offer a few things they’d like to make, and tell their host to pick from those. From the host’s side, give up the farce. You know you hate making dessert, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Are guests supposed to strip their linen?
Always! We also recommend leaving it in a neatly folded pile as opposed to a mini heap. No one’s saying you need an army fold on the sheets that are going right into the washer, but a loose fold looks like you put some thought into leaving the room looking fresh.
Is it rude to always bring paper goods/soda for family reunions that are potluck style?
The early bird gets the Fresca! As long as no one else claims it, it’s yours for the win.
My mother’s good friends used to buy me baby gifts when I gave birth. I realize that somehow I’ve become that demographic — help! Am I expected to do this, too?
It’s always a nice thing to be on the gift-giving end. If you’re in a position to do this, it will mean a lot to your friend and her married children.
Should I attend my neighbor’s shalom zachar? What about my friend who lives across town? How about if I am a friend of the mother who is hosting the kimpeturin?
If the new mother isn’t the kind of person who wants company, or she isn’t feeling well, you’re off the hook. In general, though, it’s nice to show up and share in a simchah (assuming there’s going to be room for women). If you’re on the fence about whether or not you’re close enough to join, you can always err on the side of pop-in-for-just-a-minute.
If you’re not so close with the baalei simchah should you still sit down and stay at a bris?
If the tables look empty, and you have a few minutes, it would probably be very appreciated if you stay a while.
How long do I need to stay at a bris? Is there a formula to figure out if you just stand around, take a piece of cake, actually sit, etc.? (What about packing up lunch to go?)
Think about what you would want that friend to do if she were coming to your simchah; that’s usually a good gauge. If you aren’t staying for more than a minute, and you’re not such close friends, packing a sandwich to go feels a little… opportunistic. Grab a Danish on the way out, but leave the Styrofoam containers for friends and family.
When my in-laws come for Shabbos, should I be putting snacks and treats in the guestroom, or will they see it as a sign of distance, as if they’re not welcome to help themselves directly from my kitchen cabinets?
Dressing up the room with bottles of water and little candies or nuts is usually appreciated. If you think you might be heading into the overdoing it category (full mini bar complete with hotel price list), you’ve gone too far; dial it back.
How long should I stay at my (male) boss’s simchah? What kind of gift is appropriate when he makes a bar mitzvah that costs more than my yearly salary?
If your boss is making a simchah and you aren’t that close with his wife, you don’t need to stay longer than it takes to nod in his direction and/or wish him mazel tov (situation permitting). As far as a gift, chip in with other office staff and send flowers, a chocolate platter, or a cake.
When the chassan spends Shabbos with the kallah on the first Shabbos after their engagement, should he bring individual gifts for each kid? What about teenaged (future) sisters-in-law?
While this is a nice idea, unless this is a practice common in your community, this isn’t a must. If there are teenaged siblings, let the kallah present the gifts; it’s good practice for a long life of “from the both of us” gifts that she 100 percent took care of without male input.
I’m often hosted by various families for Shabbos meals, and I always wonder if I should tell them about my food allergies and risk them slaving away making special food for me, or should I wing it, and risk the host thinking I don’t like her cooking? Should I bring my own food along?
Is your allergy life-threatening? If so, then absolutely tell your host. Is it an allergy you can work around, and usually you can find something you can eat? Then consider if you will be one guest among many and it’s unlikely that the host cooked just for you. When in doubt, it’s always best practice to offer to make something for the meal anyway, so you can make something that you’re able to eat — just make sure you make enough for everyone.
Can you thank people for wedding and baby gifts via text?
No. Sorry, but no. A handwritten card and the speed at which they are sent out is an age-old way of gauging how together your life is as compared to all other gift givers. Unless the gift was food, in which case, sure, send a gushy, elaborate text.
I know all the kids’ clothing stores have super strict rules about returns, and I’m slowly getting the hang of it (my oldest is 14). I shopped in a store with a 24-hour return policy. I had something out of the store for 24 and a half hours, and they won’t let me return it. Should I put up a fuss?
A rule is a rule, our friend. You have the option to never shop there again, and they have the option to be extreme sticklers about arbitrary rules.
If I’m waiting in line at the grocery and I realize I forgot one thing, can I go get it?
If, and only if, you will return to the checkout line before the cashier is finished scanning and bagging your items, you may. If there will be toe-tapping time while the whole line is waiting for you to get your act together, you’re out of luck.
If I get on line in a grocery store and the woman in front of me has two overflowing carts, and I just want to buy a bottle of milk, can I ask to go in front of her?
You can ask, but there’s a reason express lanes exist. First choice should be to utilize them.
If I’m the woman with two overflowing carts, should I say yes to all five people who get behind me in line and ask to go ahead?
You should be offering to let them go first, but once you offer that to one person, you’re officially off the hook, no matter if the person after that has literally only one item.
From what age do kids need Shabbos shoes?
As a general rule, age three, unless you’re Hungarian, in which case, you probably bought Shabbos booties in size 0m and are not asking us this question.
How many pairs of weekday shoes should a standard paced growing child get per year?
When we were kids, anything more than a pair of shoes from September to June (and sneakers from June to September) was unheard of. But apparently things have devolved since the 90s, because the kids are going through at least two pairs a year these days. The good news is that you can usually snag a second pair at 50-percent-off come wintertime.
Non Face-To-Face Interactions
Do I need to text someone before I call?
Despite the generational arguments that this question has spurred, no, you don’t. You can, if you would like to be extra polite, but it’s not necessary.
Can I text someone late at night?
Yes, most people keep their phones on silent when they go to sleep. However, the recipient has no obligation to answer immediately, and the sender has no right to be annoyed that the sendee forgot to answer the next day because the text was opened.
Can I share someone’s cell number without asking them for permission?
If it’s a number they use professionally as well, yes. If it’s for personal reasons, best practice is to ask first. At the very least, send the person a heads-up that you’re sharing their contact information, and they should expect a call from an unknown number.
Can I forward pics someone sent me? What’s fair game, what’s private?
A meme, joke, inspirational video? Sure. A tragedy, something personal, a photo of their children? Absolute not. Shidduch résumé and photos are in the gray area: Best practice is to ask, even if you know the other person will say yes.
Can I list someone as a shidduch reference without asking their permission?
This is a bad idea. You want your references to be prepared to share the very best parts of you, and no one can do that without a little heads-up. Some people aren’t great on the phone, so it’s in your best interest to make sure your references are happy and willing to talk about you.
If I’m calling for shidduch information for my child, do I need to share my name with the people I call?
Here’s our take: Yes, you do. Whatever the reason that people are hesitant to share their name, we don’t get it. Not everyone gives a “yes” to the person they’re looking into, and that’s okay. Are you planning to ask such socially off questions you don’t want traced back to you?
Can I inform siblings/siblings-in-law about a pregnancy digitally or is this one of those cases where I actually have to call and speak in person?
This depends on your age, background, and community. For most people these days, digitally is fine, but older family members deserve a phone call.
Who can you send your fundraising link to?
Anyone whose fundraiser you have donated to, family members, and friends who like you enough to stick by you in trying times. For everyone else, post on your WhatsApp status with increasingly frantic captions.
How do I hang up the phone with people who don’t hang up?
Professionally, you can always use the ole, “I have to jump off to my next meeting.” For everything else, the baby is crying and/or someone is at the door. Speak to your LOR about lying for your own inner peace.
If someone didn’t respond to my text after about 20 minutes, is it okay for me to follow up?
No, but you can unabashedly bait them with a joke or something hock-ish to reset the clock and raise yourself on the totem pole. After two days, consider the relationship dead or consider that you might have accidentally be archived.
What does it mean to “not be a phone person” and does it excuse you from all the rules?
Sympathies to non-phone people, but no, it doesn’t exempt you from normal social graces. Yes, we all have to call our great-aunts on Erev Rosh Hashanah, and our mothers-in-law on Erev Shabbos, and our sisters-in-law to tell them big news.
Can I request a recipe from someone in a group chat by just texting the word “Recipe?”
Can I ask my neighbor/friend/relative to take along “a small package” to my kid in Israel? And if so, what does “small” really mean?
Sure, you can always ask. Small is relative to the traveler, so make sure to check. But think twice if your child in Israel really needs you to send them potato bourekas from the US. Or lens solution, for that matter.
What do you say when your friend/sister/neighbor/daughter asks, “Is my sheitel too long / my skirt too short / my dress too tight?” and… er… yes it actually is?
Err on the side of honesty. After all, if it’s halachically problematic, you’re obligated to tell her. Sympathies if it’s your super sensitive sister-in-law who will complain to your mother-in-law about you.
There are some people in my life who, without fail, pronounce my name wrong. Can I correct them?
Is it the school principal? Your shul rav? Your great aunt? Then just leave it be. Is it the neighbor who moved in next door? Then you can most certainly correct her one time. Kindly and patiently, of course.
If someone brought over a fruit platter on a non-disposable dish for a community event, am I supposed to return it, should she pick it up, or did she gift me the platter?
Technically, she should be picking it up, but you’re going to have to decide if you’d rather deal with it cluttering your house or a five-minute drive out of your way. We’d choose the latter.
What do I do if someone is pronouncing someone else’s name wrong?
The one-time to correct rule is suspended, you may correct as many times as necessary.
What if someone mispronounces a word? Can I correct them?
Try to get through the conversation without making a face, and hope she won’t be embarrassed if it happens in public. There’s one caveat: if she’s a public speaker, you should correct her for the good of the klal.
What should I do if I find something in my house that I borrowed several years ago?
You have two options: either pull your adult boots on and return it while apologizing profusely and blaming it on Covid, or getting into full disguise (to trick their doorbell camera) and drop it off incognito style in the dead of night.
How many times can I borrow from the same neighbor without her borrowing from me in between?
To be a good neighbor, you need to have a running tab in your head tallying your borrows versus how many borrows she’s banked. If you’re within three, you’re solid.
What should I do if someone borrowed something from me and I don’t like the condition it was returned in?
Stop lending out your expensive stuff. For everything else, say out loud, “It should be a kapparah,” then carry on with your life.
What should I do if one of my kids borrowed something from a neighbor without asking me first and it’s just not the type, and now I’m feeling super awkward?
Cringe quietly to yourself and keep an eye out for awkward things their kids do that you can point out is not a reflection their parenting. Hope they return the favor.
How many items can you take into the dressing room at once and what should you do with them afterward?
If there is no dressing room limit, take as many items as you’d like, provided they all fit nicely on the hooks. When you’re done, there’s almost always a rack immediately adjacent to the dressing rooms. Make sure they’re hanging neatly and add them to the rack.
If the store is crowded and the woman occupying a dressing room is leisurely perusing the racks in the clothing store she’s trying on, can I duck into her dressing room?
Totally. But she 100 percent has the right to enter the dressing room without checking to see if anyone snuck in there, so employing camp-ish tznius changing techniques might be necessary.
Is it rude to ask someone where they got their shoes/dress/whatever?
If you want to buy one similar, it’s fine. If you’re just nosy, abstain.
Can I talk on the phone while checking out in a store?
Hard no. Especially not if you live out of town. By the way, this also applies to self-checkout; hold the thought till you get to the car.
My neighbor borrows grape juice from me every Shabbos. It’s really fine with me, but I just feel bad that they have to come knocking on my door weekly. Can I just buy them a case of grape juice and have it delivered to their door?
You can, if you’re looking to lose a friend. Better bet would be to rig a fake block-wide raffle that they win. And guess what the prize is? A year’s supply of Kedem!
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 853)
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