On Misers and Cheapskates
In each historical period of Hebrew, there was a different word used to refer to parsimonious and miserly people, often called “cheapskates” in English slang. In Biblical Hebrew, the word was kilay/keilay (Isa. 32:5, 32:7). In Mishnaic Hebrew, the word was tzaykan. And in post-Mishnaic Hebrew, the word was kamtzan. In this essay we delve into the etymologies of these three terms to get down to their core roots. In doing so, slight nuances will emerge between the different words for “cheapskates” in the various stages of Hebrew.
The word kilay appears in only two places in the Bible, both brought in the same chapter (Isa. 32:5, 32:7). Because in that passage kilay is juxtaposed to shoa and nadiv, who are especially “generous” individuals, the commentators (such as Radak there and in Sefer HaShorashim) understand that the kilay means just the opposite: The kilay person is very careful about how much he gives to others; he is miserly and stingy. Such a person expends money or effort only in an excessively measured fashion.
Radak and Ibn Janach in their respective Sefer HaShorashim trace the word kilay to the triliteral root KAF-YOD-LAMMED, seeing this word as the only one derived from that root. Alternatively, Radak suggests that kilay is derived from the root KAF-VAV-LAMMED, which generally means “a measured quantifiable amount.”
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) traces the word kilay to the biliteral root KAF-LAMMED, which he defines as “all-encompassing.” The way he sees it, one of the offshoots of that root is the word kele (“jail”), which represents an “all-encompassing” imprisonment as a person’s entire body is detained and held captive. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that kilay connotes the cheapskate stingily “detaining” his own money and belongings to make sure that they are not used for others’ benefits.
Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim traces to this biliteral root include kol ("everything/all"), kallah ("bride," who is typically decked in all sorts of jewelry/adornments), kalkalah ("sustenance," i.e. providing for all of one's needs), makolet ("grocery," a store in which all necessary provisions are sold), keli ("vessel," a receptacle into which things may be placed so that they are surrounded all around by the container), heichal ("hallway," the antechamber which provides access to all the rooms within a manor), kalot (“finishing,” by which something has come into existence or been destroyed in its entirety), achilah (“eating,” because consuming food essentially destroys the foodstuff).
Ibn Ezra (to Isa. 32:5) writes that on an exegetical plane we may interpret the word kilay as a portmanteau of the phrase ki yomar sheli sheli, “when [a person says], what is mine, is mine.” This is a veiled reference to the Mishna (Avot 5:10) which states that there are four types of people in the world: Those who say “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” are either like average people or like people from Sodom; those who say “what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine” are ignorant; those who say “what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours” are pious; and those who say “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” are wicked (see Rabbeinu Yonah there).
The truth is that kilay in the sense of “cheapskate” is a rather obscure and archaic Biblical Hebrew word, especially because it was seemingly not used in Mishnaic Hebrew. Despite this, the word experienced resurgence in Medieval Sephardic circles.
However, in Ashkenazic circles, this word was not really used for a very interesting reason: The Ashkenazic commentators understood the Biblical kilay as a derivative of the root NUN-KAF-LAMMED, “deceit/trickery.” They did not agree that kilay refers to a “cheapskate” but rather understood the term as referring to a “trickster.” This is evident from the respective commentaries to Isaiah written by Rashi, Mahari Kara and Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency. They were all influenced by Menachem Ibn Saruk’s Machberet Menachem, which traces the word kilay to the biliteral root KAF-LAMMED, but categorizes it as related to words like nochel (Mal. 1:14), nichleihem (Num. 25:18), and vayitnaklu (Gen. 37:18) — all referring to “treacherous plotting”; according to the triliteralists, all these words derive from NUN-KAF-LAMMED. Rabbi Pappenheim connects NUN-KAF-LAMMED back to KAF-LAMMED by explaining that “treacherous plotting” reflects the final decisions after the entire process of planning and thinking has been completed.
Interestingly, Rashi (to Sotah 41b) offers another definition of kilay, explaining it as “a desirous person who always wants to drink wine.”
There is another fascinating point related to this word. The Midrash (Bereishet Rabbah 51:1) refers to an animal called a kilay, and there are several different ways of identifying what creature the Midrash is talking about. One explanation is that kilay is a sort of “snail.” This is the understanding preferred by the Maskillic writer Shalom Yaakov Abramowitz (1836-1917), better known as Mendele Mocher Seforim, in his scientific encyclopedia Toldot HaTeva. Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) also seems to favor this approach. Some write that kilay refers to a Schildkröte — the German term for “turtle.” Either way, there is something common to both the snail and the turtle in that both creatures carry with themselves a shell.
Based on this, Solomon Rabinowitz of New York (d. 1943) in his Sefer HaMishkalim draws a comparison between kilay as "snail/turtle" and kilay as "cheapskate." He notes that just as the cheapskate retreats into himself and is not generous with others, so does the snail/turtle sometimes retreat into his shell instead of interacting with the world around him. Just as those creatures might lock themselves up in their shell, so does a cheapskate lock himself into his belongings and only come out when the coast is clear. Drawing on this connection, Rabinowitz conjectures that perhaps the Midrashic name of this insect was somehow influenced by the Biblical term kilay.
As mentioned in our introduction, another word for “cheapskate” is tzaykan. Although this word does not appear in the Bible, it does appear in the Mishna. The Mishna (Pesachim 7:8) lays down rules for getting rid of Paschal Meats that had become disqualified. If the sacrifice became ritually impure, either in totem or by majority, then those meats ought to be burnt within the Temple complex on fires that were fueled by wood belonging to the Temple. However, if only a minority of the Paschal Meat became impure, or if the Paschal Meat became disqualified because it was left over beyond the time allotted for eating it, the individual who owned the meats was responsible for burning them with fire fueled by his own wood. Nonetheless, the Mishna concludes that the tzaykanim would bring such meats to the Temple to be burned so that they could benefit from the Temple’s wood and not need to spend the money for the wood. Thus, the tzaykan is a “cheapskate” who would rather burn the disqualified meats on the Temple’s dime rather than spending his own money on the wood.
Rashi (Pesachim 81b) explains that tzaykanim were stingy, ungenerous people. In doing so, Rashi uses a cognate of the word atzar (“stop”) to denote their efforts in “stopping” their money from reaching others (see also Rashi and Rabbeinu Chananel to Eruvin 49a).
The etymology of the term tzaykan is not readily obvious. Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (no relation) theorizes that tzaykan is derived from the Biblical Hebrew term tzuk/tzok ("a narrow strait, pressure") in the sense of the miser's narrow-mindedness in terms of what causes deserve his monetary expenditure. Another possible etymology of this term lies in the Biblical Hebrew word mutzak, which refers to a hard metal. This hardness relates to the tzaykan’s hard-headed stubbornness in that he is not easily ready to part with his own money. (Rabbi Pappenheim, as is his way, sees both of these Biblical Hebrew terms as derived from the biliteral TZADI-KUF root). Either way, the term tzaykan is a relatively rare word, but does come up in some places. For example, the classical Mussar work Orchot Tzadikim entitled his chapter on the virtue of frugality “Shaar HaTzaykanut.”
Finally, the post-Mishnaic Hebrew word for “cheapskate” is kamtzan. This word is still used nowadays in Modern Hebrew. The word kamtzan itself already appears in some versions of the Tosefta (Sotah 13:58) when relating the story of a Kohen who once took two portions of the Shewbread and still only received a bean’s worth. Cognates of kamtzan appear in various places in the Talmud, especially in verb form. In some of those places, Rashi again uses a permutation of atzar to explain the kamtzan’s actions (see Rashi to Menachot 86a and Chullin 46a, as well as Rashbam to Bava Batra 52b).
The word kamtzan is clearly derived from the Biblical Hebrew root KUF-MEM-TZADI, which appears seven times in the Bible. In all but one of those instances, this root refers to the kemitzah ritual performed on grain sacrifices (Lev. 2:2, 5:12, 6:8, Num. 5:26). Rashi (to Lev. 2:2, Ketuvot 8b, Zevachim 64b, Menachot 11a) explains that kemitzah entails using one's middle three fingers to cover one's palm and grab some flour, while brushing away with one's thumb and pinky any excess flour ensuring that the quantity of whatever is inside the three fingers does not exceed the exact amount that can be held within those three fingers. Thus, the term kemitzah denotes “containment/storage” and “minimization of quantity.” Both of these qualities are related to the parsimonious behavior of the kamtzan, who both stores his own wealth without releasing it for others, and always strives to minimize the amount that others can benefit from him.
The only other place in the Bible wherein a cognate of KUF-MEM-TZADI appears is the word l’kemzatim (Gen. 41:47) used to describe how the Land of Egypt’s fecundity in producing extra food during the seven years of surplus. As Radak (in his commentary to Gen. 41:47 and in Sefer HaShorashim) explains it, this means that from a minimal amount of seeds, the land was able to yield many three-finger loads of produce. This too relates to kemitzah in terms of the “minimization of quantity.”
Another word that seems to be derived from the root KUF-MEM-TZADI is the Aramaic word kamtza. This term is commonly used by Targum for rendering such Hebrew words as arbeh (Prov. 30:27), yelek (Nach. 3:15), and chagav (Num. 13:33, Isa. 40:22) — all of which are synonyms for “grasshopper” (see my essay “Army of Grasshoppers,” Jan. 2018). This perhaps relates to the concept of a kemitzah and kamtzan because single grasshopper out of an entire swarm of locust essentially reflects a smaller quantity from within a much larger pool.
A famous rabbinic dictum reads: “the kometz cannot satisfy the lion” (Brachot 3b, Sanhedrin 16a). One way of understanding this is that a kometz refers to a “pithy sustenance.” Such small quantities are not enough to provide for the lion’s share, hence the above dictum. The connection to kamtzan in obvious. Alternatively, the term kometz here means “grasshopper” and the rabbis mean that eating a single grasshopper is not enough to satisfy the lion’s hunger (see Rashi to Sanhedrin 16a, Rashi to Ein Yaakov Brachot 3b, and Hagahot HaBach to Brachot 3b for these two explanations).
Another famous Rabbinic dictum reads: "because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, the Holy Temple was destroyed" (Gittin 55b). In this case, Kamtza and Bar Kamtza are proper names for Jews who lived in the end of the Second Temple period. However, Rabbi Chaim of Friedberg (a brother of the Maharal) in Sefer HaChaim offers a homiletical interpretation of that dictum by explaining that it refers to intergenerational “stinginess” (kamtzanut), which caused the Jewish People to lose their Fear of Heaven and only care about themselves (see also Maharal’s Netzach Yisrael ch. 5 for more on the connection between kemitzah, Kamtza/Bar Kamtza, and grasshoppers).