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What Does "Schmatte" Mean?

What Does "Schmatte" Mean?

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The Jewish schmatte sellers in Eastern Europe may have been dressed in rags, but they were not schmattes. The Talmud tells us that impoverished Jews are to be seen as nobility who had fallen on hard times, penniless but not worthless.
The Jewish schmatte sellers in Eastern Europe may have been dressed in rags, but they were not schmattes. The Talmud tells us that impoverished Jews are to be seen as nobility who had fallen on hard times, penniless but not worthless.

Schmatte שמאטע (SHMAH-teh, often anglicized to Shmattah, or Shmattie): Rag.

This Yiddish word (of Polish provenance) has taken on meanings in various areas of Jewish life.

Regular Rags: A rag is a rag. Thus, when cleaning for Passover, when every bit of chametz (leavened grain product) must be removed from the home, a parent might tell a lazy child to “pick up a schmatte and start cleaning.”

People as Rags: After cleaning for weeks on end, said parent might begin to feel tired out and tell people that she feels like a schmatte. If she feels taken advantage of, she might say that others are treating her like a schmatte.

People in Rags: When a person’s clothing are not quite as fresh and nice as they once were, it would be accurate to say that they are dressed in schmattes. Of course, you’d have to be careful about saying that, since speaking disparagingly of others constitutes lashon hara, forbidden “evil talk.”

Rags to Riches: When Eastern European Jews began streaming to North American at the turn of the 19th century, many of them entered the garment industry. There were famous industrialists, ambitious sweatshop bosses, humble cutters and pressers, as well as wholesalers and retailers in every corner of the “shmatte business,” as the entire industry came to be known.

As in all areas of life, Torah law has instructions for “shmatte” traders:

  • Don’t mix wool and linen. Wearing the two together is a biblical prohibition known as shaatnez.
  • Everyone deserves to rest on Shabbat. For a dry-goods dealer, this used to entail significant hardship, since Saturday was easily the busiest retail day of the week. Sweatshop workers also used to find themselves locking horns with bosses who wanted them to keep producing every day of the week. In fact, the running joke in those days was that Shabbos was a composite of the words “shah (shush), boss.”
  • Everyone deserves to be paid fairly and on time—and not to be treated like a schmatte!

One last piece of wisdom: The Talmud teaches that G‑d provides the cure even before the illness. Thus, even before your clothing becomes a schmatte, you can remedy the situation with a well-placed latte (patch).

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Yankeleh Gilead Eastern Thailand January 18, 2018

I enjoyed the very informative article about shmattess. It is a word every Yiddish speaking Jew is brought up with, but I never knew the story of its origin. I would love it if you would have a special weekly vocabulary origin article. I still use the Russian word papiross for a cigarette. Most of my friends use "cigarett'n". Reply

Mister K Boynton Beach, FL January 17, 2018

A "schmatte" a sacrificial piece of cloth that can used for the purpose of wiping or cleaning something more important than the rag, itself. In the early 20th century, my grandfather was a carpenter by trade, who took pleasure in wiping down and cleaning the benches of his Shul. I wish I were there to have asked whether he used a schmatte, or a glorified piece of cloth, to clean those seats. Reply

Anonymous January 17, 2018

Cute and insightful A nice lesson in both yiddish and yiddishkaite Reply

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