There was an idiom that I would hear from time to time as I was growing up whose cloaked meaning I understood, but I couldn’t quite figure out why it was phrased the way it was. The idiom was “penny-wise and pound-foolish.” I knew that it referred to an action that could lead to a short-term financial gain or benefit but that “at the end of the day” was actually counterproductive and costly. For example, buying a very expensive item that was greatly discounted – like $500 snow boots reduced to $50 when you live in Arizona.
What I couldn’t figure out was the relation between pennies and pounds. Why was a unit of currency, the penny, being compared to a unit of weight? What did money have to do with 16 ounces in terms of doing something that ultimately was short-sighted?
Decades later, this Canadian who watched American TV shows via the signals beamed in from Buffalo as well as British TV shown on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), finally figured out that the words “pound foolish” actually did refer to money, the British pound. Hence the term that was “coined” (pun intended) “penny-wise and a pound-foolish” actually made cents – I mean sense (pun intended again). I had a eureka moment.
This wise expression describes a mindset that unfortunately is all too common. Although it’s original intention describes a financial act that ends up costing more in the long run – like driving 20 miles out of your way to get cheaper gas – it can be viewed as doing something that initially appears to be clever. For example, pretending you can easily support a learning son-in-law so your daughter can get a “top” boy. This ultimately backfires as the father-in-law accrues huge debt borrowing money or fails to hold up his end of the bargain and has disgruntled machatanim and shalom bayit issues.
I actually witnessed a very rare situation that was both penny-wise and pound-wise, pound as in a measure of weight. Many years ago some friends and I went to a bakery/café where we enjoyed coffee and pizza. A couple walking in caught our collective eyes. She was a tall, slim, blond in high heels; he was older and distinguished looking. Both stared intently at the amazing display of fruit and custard pies, powdered tarts, nut and frosting covered cakes, and sugary cookies. One of my friends, who has a knack for reading people, said that they would not actually buy anything. And she was right. For about 20 minutes they intensely gazed at every mouth-watering item behind the glass, and then abruptly walked out.
My friend smiled. They eat with their eyes, she said, and not with their mouths. They probably visualized eating the tarts and the custards, and “virtually” tasted what they saw, without adding empty calories that could undermine their toned bodies. We were fascinated. Not only did they save money by not buying any of the tempting offerings – that were costly in terms of dollars – but they wisely avoided eating food that could end up leading to an expanded waistline. Hence they were both penny- and pound-wise.
On the other hand, if they ended up starving themselves and then binged later on, they would actually be “pound-” and penny-foolish.
Back to today. The eight days of Chanukah are over and for many of us each additional candle represented an additional pound of weight. Eight candles – eight days of latkes and donuts and a much higher number on the scale.
There are some who are blessed with speedy metabolisms and can scarf down oil-enriched potato pancakes, sufganiyot, pizza, bagels, etc. They will have no trouble zipping up their pants or skirts. However, for a significant number of us, eating an extra spoonful of sour cream might make our tummies expand.
Is that fair? Of course not, but that’s reality, and we have to address that reality for our own good.
I definitely fall in that category of those who gain weight easily. One of the most ironic statements I ever heard came from a friend who told me how fortunate I was to be a FFB – fat from birth – because I had decades of awareness of how to eat so I wouldn’t gain weight. She, on the other hand, had spent most of her life being able to eat anything and stay skinny. In her late 50’s, that all changed and now she was a diet “baal teshuva” and a novice in the ins and out of how to eat and count calories. It was like learning a new language late in life – one I had been forced to learn from childhood.
The fact is, the secular world just celebrated a “new year.” It is customary for many to make self-improvement resolutions. One of the most common resolutions, after a week of drinking and eating, is losing weight and exercising on a regular basis.
Perhaps this January, we too should take it upon ourselves to take on the difficult challenge. It would be less than honest to say it is easy as it entails changing ingrained habits and behaviors.
On Rosh Hashanah, we are motivated to improve our spiritual selves; today let’s focus on physical improvements – which actually do have a spiritual basis. We are admonished to “very much watch over our souls,” which refers to our bodily health. We were put on this earth to do mitzvot and the longer we live, the more mitzvot we can do. There is no guarantee that being “pound-wise” will extend our lives, but medical science insists that it helps.
But we also need to be pound-wise in our dealings with other human beings. Taking advantage of naïve or trusting customers by overcharging them or selling them shoddy goods might gain one more profit, but in the long run, it will ruin a person’s reputation and business. Penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Being mean or abusive to a relative or friend because he or she are weaker, poorer, or has no value to you because he or she doesn’t enhance your social standing can be “penny-wise,” but if that person ends up being successful professionally or financially or a macher in the community, you could end up very “pound -foolish” if you need his services.
How many parents looked down their noses and refused a shidduch because he wasn’t “good enough” for their princess – then he became a talmid chacham or a brilliant doctor or a financial wizard while their daughter ended up an older single or married to a boy whose merits were hyper-inflated?
You may be a bit too “creative” on your tax returns and save a lot of money, or you may help yourself to donations that are not meant for you and spend it instead on expensive home furnishings, cars, or vacations, but if you are caught and fined or even imprisoned you will end up quite pound-foolish.
Ultimately after 120 years, on Yom Hadin, you will know if you were penny-wise, but pound-foolish. So act wisely.