Schmutz is a Yiddish word that means “dirt” or “grime.” Properly pronounced, it should rhyme with “puts,” not “cuts.” It is sometimes spelled shmutz or shmootz.

Metaphorical Schmutz: Something profane or lewd can be described with the adjective schmutzig (or schmutzik), which functions like “dirty” in English. Here’s an example: Oy! That joke was schmutzik!

Schmutzike Biology: Keeping clean is important in Judaism. Before sitting down to a meal, we wash our hands. This handwashing is followed by a short blessing, and has almost nothing to do with physical cleanliness, as it takes place after your hands are already clean. So before washing for bread (you can learn more about that here), make sure to wash your schmutzike hent (“grubby hands”). In Judaism it is super-important not to use foul language, so some people may need occasional reminders to close their shmutzike moyl (“dirty mouth”).

What Schmutz Isn’t: Prior to Passover, when every bit of chametz (leavened grain product) must be removed from the home (using schmattes, of course), it is important to remember the adage: schmutz is not chametz. Grime is just grime.

A Trace of Schmutz: Shemetz, a loanword from Hebrew, means “trace,” implying the tiniest amount of something. Technically, one can have a shemetz of schmutz, but the two words have no etymological link.

A Chassidic Tale About Schmutz

There was once a young bird who knew only of her mother’s nest. She began to feel that the nest was small and dirty. Worst of all, it smelled horribly. The more the poor chick sniffed, the worse the place seemed to smell. Finally, she felt compelled to fly off on her own, in search of a more wholesome environment.

Flying unsteadily, she made her way to a nearby barn and made herself comfortable. But alas, it took only a few minutes for her to discover that there was a stench there as well, just as bad as the nest she had left.

She hopped into the barnyard and tried to find a comfortable spot, but it also stank. She went from place to place, but wherever she went, she found an awful smell. Finally, discouraged and disillusioned, she returned home to consult with her Mama Bird. “Little Bird,” said her mother, “the world doesn’t smell—there’s just a piece of schmutz stuck to your beak.”

This reflects the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov that if you see a flaw in someone else, it’s because you yourself have this same blemish. In a sense, the other is merely mirroring your own schmutz for you to see and correct.