06/10/2012 08:32 am ET Updated Aug 10, 2012

On Jewish Ethics: Don't Be a Schnorrer

The best definition I found for the Yiddish term schnorrer comes from that unexpected 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, a schnorrer is beyond miserly or cheap. The schnorrer is often unethical to the point of stealing. Is the stealing illegal? No. More often than not, the stealing is quite subtle and perfectly legal. Legal, but not ethical.

How does this work? The schnorrer 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 on buying a camera online. Nevertheless, she takes up 30 minutes of the salesman's time with complicated and specific questions. This example works for any purchases that are hard to complete on the Internet because you can't test the products, compare them in person or ask experts how to use them.

2. This schnorrer (let's call her Molly) enjoys free author readings at independent bookshops and at Barnes and Noble. Molly also browses bookstores for ideas of what to read next. Molly, however, would never purchase a book on the spot when she could buy it for $5 less on Amazon. Molly 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. Molly, of course, feels outraged and depressed when the only place left in town to browse books is Walmart. Molly is a schnorrer.

3. Michael sits in a coffee shop clearing e-mails 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, Michael purchases one cup of coffee. He's indignant when the coffee shop charges $0.50 for refills. The Michaels of the world also bring lunch from home instead of purchasing a meal from the selection of salads and sandwiches the coffee shop hopes to sell. Michael thinks he's clever. Michael is a schnorrer.

4. Lucy loves trying on clothes at the well-merchanised boutique near her office. They give her great ideas of how to put outfits together in ways she would not have imagined herself. Despite the salespeople's time and attention, Lucy makes most of her purchases (of the same clothes) online because she prefers the no-questions-asked return policies of the popular websites and department stores. Lucy, of course, likes the option of wearing a dress to an event then returning it afterwards. "They'll never know," she thinks. Lucy is a schnorrer.

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." The truth is this: the salesperson job is to sell. And the coffee shop, book store, local camera shop and boutiques only stay open if people make purchases. They're running businesses, not community centers.

A schnorrer might also say, "But the salesperson doesn't know I'm not planning to buy anything." Right. And that's why this behavior is unethical. To intentionally take time from someone who could be earning a commission from working with a different customer is a form of theft.

I'm not saying it's unethical to casually look around stores. If customers are genuinely browsing without the intention to make a purchase elsewhere, that's another story. That's called shopping. There's nothing wrong with comparing prices or taking time to think about a purchase. But if people give you their time, the opportunity to test products and offer expertise, isn't it worth spending a little more?

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 perfectly legal. But it's unethical, and un-Jewish. (Ask any rabbi from any denomination.)

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