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.

HOW TO SPOT A SCHNORRER: FOUR EXAMPLES

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.)

DO YOU KNOW ANY SCHNORRERS? WHAT OTHER EXAMPLES CAN YOU SHARE OF SCHNORRER-LIKE BEHAVIOR?

(Image: Sushi Ina)

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About Nina Badzin @NinaBadzin

Nina Badzin is a Minneapolis-based essayist, short story writer, and a mother of four. You can also find her blogging regularly at http://ninabadzin.com. Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NinaBadzinBlog. Twitter: @NinaBadzin

Comments. Add Yours!

38 comments

  1. Personally, I get irritated by the people who make their Saturday “brunch” out of the samples at the grocery store, even going back for seconds, but then walking out without buying groceries.

  2. Wow great article. I have an acquaintance who is exactly like you described above. She finds the “deal” for everything and is constantly taking advantage of and abusing the system. She thinks she’s a good shopper I think she’s a thief.

    I also think that those extreme couponers fall into this category! They abuse the system – I mean really who needs 500 toothbrushes? That just means next time I go to the store I have to pay more for my toothbrush to make up for the loss.

    I freely admit to being cheap. I don’t buy books – ever. I use the library. The last time I did buy a book was when the library had an author come talk about her book – I bought her book. I also admit to being a compulsive researcher when it comes to big ticket items and will go take up a sales person’s time – but never when they’re busy and never if I’m already convinced that I won’t buy from them. I don’t always trust buying the more expensive items online. I guess being conscientious and respectful are really what’s at the core of this.

  3. I wanted to add that a lot of these screams college student. I know during finals one year I went to a chili’s ordered a soda with free refills and a basket of chips and salsa with free refills. I sat there for hours studying. Granted it was in the middle of the day in the middle of the week so they weren’t busy but I don’t think I tipped very well. Some where along the way (probably when I got a real job and real bills) I realized that yeah it might cost me more but it’s not ok to live like a college kid any more.

  4. Oh Nina – we’re two peas in a pod.

    Here’s one for you that I’ve witnessed more than once:

    At Costco, a woman buys $450 worth of stuff and then packs up her Mercedes SUV. But when the cashier asked if she wanted to donate $1 for Japan earthquake relief, she said, no.

  5. You people are WAY too judgemental and superior in your frustrations with those people. You don’t know their motivations or lives. Isn’t it UNJEWISH to gossip and complain about others to make youself feel superior to them???!!!

  6. It’s wonderful that the Jewish language actually has a word for this annoying, and yes, dishonest behavior, Nina. Gotta love the Yiddish for calling it like it is. The examples you gave really made me stop and think about my OWN behavior in these situations. I think I’ve been guilty of being a schnorror on occasion. But now that you’ve made me aware, I don’t think I will ever do so again.

    I used to work behind the Clinique counter at a big store…the scenario you describe is fairly common. I did learn to spot these gals. And you’re right; the ones who didn’t lie about it got my attention. And they usually tipped me afterward.
    Thanks for being brave and speaking out about this. And for making us all take a look at ourselves. Good job, Nina!

  7. TANYA: Yes–I think the key is being aware of what we’re doing and how it effects others, not just us. Not every situation is black and white. It’s the person who knowingly wastes someone’s time who is at fault. If you’re TRULY not sure what/if you’re going to make a purchase, that’s a different story.

    AMY: This isn’t gossip. We talking about a real ethical issue here, not just petty complaining. Watch Prager’s video. He does a MUCH better job explaining than I do in this piece. And it is okay to discuss an issue that truly effects others (stores, salespeople, etc). The point is not to be nasty, it’s to illustrate the frustration felt by stores when people are dishonest. Being a schnorrer and being thrifty are different. Thrifty is perfectly fine and ethical. The schnorrer takes advantage.

  8. CYNTHIA: Thank you for sharing your experience as a former make-up artist! My good friend is a make-up artist, and I KNOW she’d be happy to help anyone who is upfront as long as the counter isn’t busy. She loves to work on new faces, try the products out on people, etc. But when the customer is dishonest that’s really unfair to her and the people waiting. It’s ALL about intention here. That’s the difference between the schnorrer and the person watching her budget. You can do the later without being the former.

    And you’re right, we’re all guilty of this in subtle ways. It’s great to be more aware! Thanks for the comment!

  9. My ex-husband used to sneak soda and popcorn into the movies. Yes, that stuff is expensive at the theater, but that’s because it’s the movie studio that makes money from the ticket sales. The theater makes its money from the food and drinks.

    At self-pay parking lots where you’re supposed to put your money in an envelope or slot with the number of the parking space you used, he used to always intentionally put in $1 or $2 less than the posted parking fee, thinking he wouldn’t get towed or get a ticket because they would think he just made a mistake.

    And this was a guy who made over $100,000 a year, so it’s not like he couldn’t afford it.

  10. I so love that there is a single convenient (admittedly a bit comical, too) word like, SCHNORRER, that so perfectly covers this abundance of bad behaviors. The thing that grates the most is that these “thefts” of time and stuff are generally non-essentials for the health and general well-being of the Schnorrer. It’s enough to make me reevaluate my own sometimes questionable behaviors :-0

  11. Totally agree with this piece. People have such a sense of entitlement – everything is theirs for the taking. I agree it is okay to be thrifty but to be dishonest about it – thats just wrong! Great take on this Nina!!

  12. Prager would be proud! Great write Neen! Dang Schnorrers!!

  13. Susan, movies are a GREAT example. Thank you!

  14. So sad … so true … a friend … a raven-haired maven of Saks would go to the designer floor if she had an even with the “judges” wives (married to a Supreme Court Judge in NYC) and get a $4K outfit. Tuck in the label and tag, make sure not to get it dirty and return it three days later.

    Please darline, I grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn and lived on the West Side of Manhattan. In the five boroughs this character is as common as pigeons and we all think pigeons are rats with wings );

    And it is so true … nothing says it quite like Yiddish. It breaks my heart that it may be passing on into history. Thanks for this and for keeping it alive 🙂

  15. These things are so annoying, I agree…. yet, I must admit that I feel a little tug of guilt because I have snuck water (and candy) into a theater….and last weekend we sat (a little) too long at a cafe when we went out to breakfast, knowing others were waiting. I have always rationalized that it’s ok because I don’t do it with a sense of entitlement…however, after viewing Dennis Prager’s video, I need to reconsider! This is a great blog topic! (p.s. it does bring up an interesting dilemma for people who buy online, however….because sometimes it is nice to see and hold something prior to buying it…)

  16. uh oh…i’m guilty.

    Very extremely guilty of #2 and only somewhat guilty of #3.
    But, not guilty at all of #1 and #4 so I’m only half going to hell.

    But just like my bff Oprah says…When you know better you do better.
    So I will try to do better.

    Good post Nina! (even tho I’m snacking on ice cream to work thru my guilt. Jewish guilt.)

  17. Bob Loewenstein

    I know a woman who will go to a nice restaurant, order a
    complete dinner and she’ll eat half the salad. Then tell
    the waiter she doesn’t like it and would he please take
    it off the bill. He says “of course.” He tries to remove
    the half-eaten salad and she stops him saying “someone else at the table may want it.” Then when getting ready to leave, she’ll say “could I get a box to take this home?” This is a schnorrer of biblical proportions

  18. I think the key to the issue is intentions. If you visit several shops and take up the time of sales people because you are distinguishing features, prices, information, etc. trying to find the best value, that is – in my opinion – legitimate.

    However, if you know from the start that you are using these workers with no possibility of patronizing their store or contributing to their commissions, shame on you.

    That’s taking advantage of someone in a position to help who cannot say “no” and I’m not okay with it.

    Great post, Nina.

  19. Listen, we’ve all been guilty of this in different forms at one time or another be it downloading music from Napster back in the day, bringing candy into movies, etc. This isn’t about being an angel 100% of the time. The idea is just to be a little more aware . . . I like how Prager (in the video) frames the idea as thinking about our obligations to others and not just our rights.

  20. If Yiddish doesn’t say it perfectly then Oprah always does! 😉 Seriously though, it’s the perfect point: When you know better you do better. It’s not about being perfect . . . it’s about being a little more aware of how our actions have karma. Nobody buys books at store = no bookstore. Thanks for commenting!

  21. Exactly! You nailed it . . . INTENTION is the key here.

  22. You cover law and ethics but what about humor? A woman invited a schnorer into her kitchen to feed him. On the table was black bread and challah. The schnorer started eating the challah and ignored the black bread. “There is black bread too,” the woman said. “I like the challah better,” replied the schnorer. “Yes, but the challah is more expensive said the woman.” “Ah, and well worth it,” remarked the schnorer!

  23. AMEN!!!!!

  24. Well played, AD, well played. 😉

  25. Oy…just reading this gives me agita. I’ve been giving this same sermon for fifteen years, but people aren’t listening. Better a schnorrer than a freier, they’d respond.

    We just aren’t supposed to behave in this fashion. {{ sigh…}}

  26. This is a great post, Nina, but so sad in its honesty. I know people who have this sense of entitlement, and it drives me batty. The crazy thing about people like this is that they honestly feel they are doing nothing wrong, and don’t even begin to comprehend the concept of “ethics.” Is it learned and passed on from generation to generation? I don’t get it…

  27. Thanks for this post, Nina. I can’t tell you how disgusted I get by people who moan over the demise of bookstores, then go into their local indie and price stuff to buy on Amazon. Then they broadcast it on Twitter with the excuse that books are too expensive and they don’t have enough money so they have to do things this way. Books too expensive? Try going to the f***ing library instead of bankrupting your local bookstore.

    The worst part about the schnorrer is that there is no perspective to the “victories.” They’ll put just as much effort into scoring a free sample from Cinnabon as forcing a car dealer to honor a sale price 3 days after the sale ended.

    Anyway, that’s my rant for the day. Thanks for the opportunity–and for reminding me of another fabulous Yiddish word. Someone should do a study on why so many Yiddish words capture emotion (whether it’s admiration, scorn, humor, whatever) so perfectly just in their sounds and spelling.

  28. No one wants to be a freier. Oy, my Israeli friends go to such lengths to avoid that.

  29. Wonderful post Nina.

    Love, Dad

  30. Hahahaha Un- jewish? Please send an army of rabbis to south florida to speak to all the retired jewish schnorrers.
    My particular pet peeve? The people who “dine” barehanded out of the bulk food dispensers at my local Whole Foods.

  31. Hi Nina!

    Thank you sooooo much for writing this!!! I had a story I wanted to share as well.

    I recently worked for someone that totally epitomizes the schnorrer.

    He had hired me to help finish a project in manhattan at a hotel near The world financial center which had gotten out of control. We were contracted to reframe/ refurbish the existing artwork.The client was already angry when I started because the materials used were of VERY poor quality. It turns out that was because my boss had shown them a grade”AA” material, and then proceeded to order a “B” grade to save some money (grades indicate the clarity of wood. “AA” is very clean, “A” has some markings, and “B” is a rougher finish.). Within the first week it was very clear that he wanted to finish the project without incurring any further expense on his part (he told me there was no overtime, and to come in later if i need to stay late.). The project was 12 floors, 38 rooms on each, with approximately 4-5 pictures per room. I was the only person from my company, and I had a few weeks before the “soft opening”. It soon became clear the majority of product on site was not acceptable by the clients standards, and they would likely take legal action if it wasn’t rectified. So, I explained to my boss they wanted the majority replaced, and they were concerned about the time constraints. He in turn told them he would reorder material immediately, and we would fix any problems. so, instead of ordering the right material, he turned around and reordered the same stuff, but asked the distributor to “try to give him cleaner pieces this time.”Oh, did i mention he opted against expiditing the order to once again save a buck! All along telling the client it would be in his shop in a week. well, for three weeks i was off the project waiting for the new material to come in. In that time he kept telling the client it would be coming in soon. after not being on site for 3 weeks i finally returned to a now fully operational hotel. When I arrived at 8am I was immediately confronted by the client and asked where the new material was. I told them the owners son was on his way into the city to drop it off. At 3:45pm in the afternoon he finally showed up, but didnt have anything in the van. upon hearing this the client called my boss and told him we were not to come back to the hotel, and they would get another company to fulfill the contract. After speaking to the client, my boss called me and told me it was my fault we were thrown off the job. The next day when I went to the shop, I was told my services were no longer needed, AND, He intended to withhold my pay! A month later I still have not received my pay, and subsequently filed with the department of labor for unpaid wages. My tools were actually stolen from the site because he didn’t provide a job box!! And, he has the audacity to withold my pay!! (the cheap bastard didnt even offer me a $10 home depot gift card to replace my $500.00+ worth of tools lost!!)

    If this guy isn’t a schnorrer I dont know who is! I am a strong believer in kharma, and an even stronger believer in revenge having an eternity to run its course!

    I will ultimately get the money I have rightfully earned, and he will still be a pathetic SCHNORRER!!

  32. P.S.: I would have to remind him to pay me on a weekly basis! And, when he did, you would think he was giving up a kidney!! In fact,for passover, he and his family took a trip to israel for a week, and, wouldn’t you know it, he “forgot” to pay me before leaving!!I would like to see how he would react if someone withheld his pay for no reason!
    I have many jewish friends, and ALL of them quickly sought to diassociate his abhorrent behavior from his unfortunate affiliation with the jewish faith!

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