Schvitz (also spelled shvitz) [Yiddish]
verb: to sweat
Schvitz: to perspire
Schvitz: to be nervous
Durchshvitz (/doorkh*shvitz/): to persevere
Schvitz (noun): a steam bath, where people sweat
Schvitzer (noun, adjective): a big shot (who can afford to sit in a schvitz and shoot the breeze with fellow schvitzers)

Let’s Schvitz This Out Together

In its most basic usage, schvitz simply refers to sweating. So a person may say, “On Yom Kippur, the synagogue was so stuffy, I was schvitzing buckets.” Note that the actual product of “schvitzing” is referred to as “shvays,” not schvitz.

Now in the synagogue, the cantor, who has been preparing for this big day since midsummer, is schvitzing for a different reason. Besides for the jitters associated with performing before a large crowd, he’s schvitzing because he understands the awesome responsibility of representing the community before G‑d on this holiest day of the year.

But the truth is that our friend with schvitzy palms has nothing to worry about (note that “schvitzy” is an English adaptation). When quitting is not an option (and he knows that he cannot do that), the only other path is durchschvitzen, “sweating it through.”

Before Yom Kippur, along with many other Jews, the cantor (who would prefer that you use the Hebrew term chazzan) immersed in a mikvah, a purifying pool of water. He chose to go to the best mikvah in town. In addition to offering their patrons fluffy, oversized towels, they also offer a separate schvitz (also called a schvitz-bod), a steam bath.

So our cantor found himself sitting with all the schvitzers, the high rollers of the local community. As they sat and schvitzed in the steamy haze, they discussed how much they looked forward to Yom Kippur and how confident they were that the chazzan would do a great job on Yom Kippur.

With that edifying memory in mind, and no other option but success in front of him, he approached the lectern, wiped the shvays from his forehead and began to sing.

Why People Enjoy the Schvitz

If the pain of enduring stifling heat were not enough, the authentic, old-time schvitz experience would include getting wacked on the back by a bath attendant wielding a bundle of leafy branches, called a bezem (broom).

In the summer of 1948, the late Rabbi Sholom B. Gordon was about to accept his first pulpit position in Newark, New Jersey, a city with a large Jewish population at the time. The young rabbi was unsure of how to proceed. As a committed Chassid, he wished to urge his flock to increase their observance and connection to traditional Yiddishkeit. On the other hand, he did not want to alienate anyone.

The Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—guided him as follows:

“Have you ever been to a schvitz?” asked the Rebbe, “How does it work there?”

“Yes, my father took me many times,” answered the young man, who had spent his early years in the ‘old country,’ “Everyone sits and schvitzes. There are various levels, and the higher you go, the more intense the heat. There is also an attendant who massages people with the bezem during their time at the schvitz.”

“Now what were to happen,” asked the Rebbe, “if a fellow were to walk over to someone on the sidewalk and start ‘massaging’ him with a bezem. How would one react to that? Would he not hit him back?

“However,” continued the Rebbe, “if you first elevate them and warm them up with words of inspiration and Torah, when you later make use of the bezem, they don’t get mad. On the contrary, they come back and ask for more.”

Another Schvitz-Related Chassidic Tale

As was his habit, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch (1834-1882) was receiving those who lined up to seek his counsel on all matters: material, spiritual, emotional and more.

Scarcely an hour had passed since the audiences had begun, and already the Rebbe was exhausted; he called a break and asked for a fresh change of clothes.

"Master of the Universe," muttered the secretary, "why does he exert himself so?! Every hour he needs a new change of clothes. Why does the Rebbe schvitz so much?"

Hearing that his aide did not appreciate the work he was doing, the Rebbe told him that he would be paid, but his services were no longer needed.

"Don't you understand? In the past hour, 20 people have come to see me. Each of them poured out his neshamah (soul) to me and asked for my assistance in curing it of its ills. To relate to each one's personal dilemma, I have to see it through their eyes. So I must divest myself of my own personality and circumstances and clothe myself in theirs. Then, in order to answer them, I must re-assume my own persona—otherwise, why would they come to consult with me?

"Did you ever attempt to change your clothes 40 times an hour? If such physical dressing and undressing would exhaust you and make you schvitz, can you imagine what it involves to do so in the mental, emotional and spiritual sense?"