On Jewish Ethics: Don’t be a Schnorrer

Nothing irks me more than a schnorrer. What exactly is a schnorrer? The best definition I found for the Yiddish term “schnorrer” comes from that wise and trusted keeper of the Yiddish language, Wikipedia. The English usage of the word denotes a sly chiseler who will get money out of another any way he can, often through an air of entitlement. A schnorrer is distinguished from an ordinary beggar by dint of his boundless chutzpah.”

In other words, the schnorrer is far worse than the cheap or miserly person.  The schnorrer is often unethical to the point of stealing. Is the stealing always illegal? No. In fact, more often than not the stealing is quite subtle and perfectly legal. Legal, but not ethical.

How does this work? The schnorrer thinks he deserves to get as much as he possibly can. He believes that if he can outsmart a store, a person, or an institution, then he has earned the reward. The schnorrer rarely considers what he owes the world because he’s too preoccupied with what he thinks the world owes him. And of course, the “he” is as often a “she.” Remember, we’re talking unethical activity, not illegal. You might be surprised by how many schnorrers you know.


1. First, watch Dennis Prager’s brief and amusing video on YouTube explaining the law in the Talmud forbidding us to steal a shopkeeper’s time. Prager specifically discusses the example of a woman knowing upon walking into the local camera store that she plans to buy a camera online. Nevertheless, she takes up thirty minutes of the salesman’s time with questions about one camera versus another. Of course this example works for any electronic purchases that are hard to do on the internet because you can’t test the products, compare them in person, ask experts how to use them, and so on.

2.  The schnorrer (let’s call this one Judith) enjoys free author readings at independent bookshops in town or even at a big chain like Barnes and Noble (RIP Borders in The Twin Cities and elsewhere). Judith also browses bookstores for ideas of what to read next. However, Judith would never purchase a book at the store when she could buy it for $10 less or even $2 less online. Judith also has no qualms about reading magazines cover to cover while she’s at the store even though she has no intention of purchasing one, ever. Despite Judith’s schnorrer-like behavior, she’s outraged and depressed when the store cannot afford to stay open.

3. Simon sits in a coffee shop clearing emails for three hours enjoying the air-conditioning, free Wi-Fi, and the chance to charge his iPhone, computer, and iPad. But during the time he’s monopolizing one of the few tables by an outlet, Simon purchases one cup of coffee. He’s indignant when the coffee shop charges $.50 for refills. He asks for water instead. He’ll show them, he thinks.

4. Aviva loves getting her make-up professionally applied before attending weddings or other major events. Instead of booking an appointment with a make-up artist and paying $50 or more, Aviva walks up to the make-up counter in any department store and pretends she’s interested in “a whole new look.” After the salesperson (who works on commission) spends over thirty minutes making Aviva gorgeous, Aviva purchases a $14 lip gloss and says she has to think about the rest. Aviva does this so often she has to find a new store before the next event. (If Aviva told the salesperson she had an event that evening, but could only afford lip gloss for now, I’m willing to bet the make-up artist would be happy to work on her anyway if no other customers were waiting. Honesty is key in these instances.)

In the above examples, the schnorrer says, “But that’s the salesperson’s job” or “I have every right to be in the store/restaurant.” Here’s what I say: Actually, the salesperson job is to sell stuff. And the bookstore and coffee shop only stay open if people make purchases. They’re running businesses, not community centers and libraries.

In the example of the electronics or the make up counter, the schnorrer says, “But the salesperson doesn’t know I’m not planning to buy anything.” To that I say: EXACTLY, Ms. Schnorrer. You are intentionally stealing time from an innocent salesperson who could be earning a commission from working with a different customer. Are cameras, TVs, stereos and other items more expensive at stores than they are online? YES. But the schnorrer might want to consider that the salesperson’s time, the opportunity to test products, touch them, and compare them is worth the extra money you pay in person. You get what you pay for. As Prager states so well in the video, we have obligations as consumers, not just rights.

Yes, being a schnorrer is not illegal. But it’s unethical, and un-Jewish. (Ask any rabbi from any denomination.)


(Image: Sushi Ina)