Schnorrer (noun): A Yiddish term for an individual who engages in the act of schnorring, taking from others, typically in the form of charitable gifts; a corollary would be the English description of a “moocher.”

The term schnorrer is generally regarded as derogatory (and has expanded to refer to anyone who is not quite making it, socially, financially or appearance-wise) and has generated a full genre of Jewish legends, stories and jokes. But all humor aside, Jewish communities have historically done the honorable work of accommodating and supporting schnorrers with dignity.

Many contemporary Jewish communities have a special board to whom traveling collectors can present their bona fides (medical bills, letters from local rabbis etc.) in exchange for a letter of recommendation (known as a hamlatzah). With these letters in hand, they go from door to door (identifying Jewish homes by the mezuzah scroll on the right side of the doorway) and canvass synagogues to collect donations large and small.

Communities may also make accommodations available so that the collectors can minimize the expenses accrued during their travels. In times gone by, many communities supported a hekdesh (Hebrew for “sacred [place]”), where wayfarers and other indigents could find lodgings. Since these places were often somewhat neglected, this term has also come to refer to a messy place, along the lines of a chazer shtahl (Yiddish for “pigsty”).

The Meshuloch: Literally “agent,” a meshuloch (pl. meshulochim) refers to one who is collecting funds for a cause other than himself and his immediate family. These typically include social service organizations or institutions of Torah scholarship. Since the Middle Ages, there has been a stream of meshulochim traveling from the Holy Land to the diaspora to give Jews the merit of supporting those who make their homes on the sacred soil of Israel. A meshuloch from the Land of Israel was often known as a shadar, an acronym for sheliach derabanan (“agent of the rabbis”), presumably since the rabbis of the Holy Land would often choose an outstanding scholar to represent their cause to communities abroad.

In Chabad parlance, the term was also given to select chassidim whose responsibilities included raising funds for the Rebbe’s institutions.

Hachnosas Kallah: Many poor folk manage to eke out a living without relying on others until their children reach marriageable age, when the expenses of holding a respectable wedding and setting up the new couple prove beyond their modest means. People collecting money to marry off their children may state that they are collecting for hachnosas kallah (“bringing in the bride”), which the Mishnah lists as a cause so special that it pays immediate dividends to the donor in This World, and the principal still awaits them in the World to Come.1

Tizkeh Lemitzvos: After they receive a donation (and often even before), a collector may tell a (prospective) patron, tizkeh lemitzvos, “may you merit to mitzvahs.” This reflects the rabbinic notion that the reward for a good deed is the ability to perform another one.2

Tzedakah: Despite the negative connotations attached to the term schnorrer, the collector himself may feel little shame in what he is doing. On the contrary, he may feel that he is doing his fellow Jews a favor by allowing them to contribute to the worthy cause(s) he represents. This ties in directly to the word tzedakah, which is often translated as “charity” but actually means “justice.” For a Jew to give money to another is not an act of generosity or largess. Rather, it is an honest reflection of the way of the world: As everything belongs to G‑d, and He gives one person more than another so that they may perfect His world by redistributing the wealth accordingly, tzedakah is better translated as righteousness, or a means of setting the world right.

This gives perspective to the following story, which, true or not, reflects the Jewish approach to charitable giving:

The Baron and the Beggar

There was once a fellow who would regularly collect alms from a Jewish magnate (known in Yiddish as a gvir), claiming that the money was for his impoverished mother.

Time passed and the mother passed on. When the son next came to collect his regular stipend, the gvir’s assistant challenged him: “Your mother is no longer among the living. Why are you here now?”

“Just one second!” shot back the witty beggar. “It’s bad enough that I am mourning my dear mother. You want the gvir to lose his mitzvah as well?”