After I purchased a new suit, a friend asked me if I had had it checked for “shatnez.” I have never heard of such a thing. He proceeded to tell me something about a prohibition involving the combining of wool and linen. What is this? Where did this come from? How is it possible to know which clothes are okay and which are not? What is the meaning of this law?
Nothing like a friend to keep us on our toes. The laws of shatnez appear in two different Torah passages. In Devarim, we read: “You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed; lest the fullness of the seed which you have sown be forfeited together with the increase of the vineyard. You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. You shall not wear mingled stuff, wool and linen together.”
Getting inside the dynamics of this law is not simple. There are several different modes of classification of mitzvot. One might be to divide them into two groups: the first, between humans and God, and the second between one person and another. Alternatively, commandments may be either positive or negative commandments, meaning a mitzvah involves performing an action (do) or refraining from an activity (don’t).
A third taxonomy involves three groupings: The first is commandments that are in the chok section. These are mitzvot known as decrees of the king. God has commanded them, and though their meanings are mysterious, we are expected to nonetheless observe them. The second category is the division of edut, mitzvot or rituals that bear testimony. For example, we eat matzoh to remember the Exodus. The third type of commandments are those in the grouping of mishpat, laws of a very obvious nature such as don’t steal or don’t murder.
Shatnez falls into the first category: it is a chok, a decree whose rationale we are not privy to — nor can we easily make sense of it. There are those who consider the laws of forbidden combinations — whether it is tree grafting, or crossbreeding of animals, or shatnez — with a modern sensibility, likening them to current conversations that disparage genetically engineered produce.
Though the Torah text itself is silent as to the reason for this commandment, later commentaries have a varied approach as to its meaning.
The Rational: Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed explains the prohibition on mixing linen and wool in the same garment as one of the directives aimed at distancing the Jewish people from idol worship. He explains that the Canaanites would wear these kinds of garments; we, therefore, must abstain from similar practices.
The Mystical: The Zohar links the ban on wool and linen garments to the story of Cain and Abel. Cain brought an offering of produce of the land while Abel brought an offering from the best of his flock — each from the two separate domains. The bringing together of the two reminds us of this first horrific crime of fratricide. That the law of shatnez appears in Vayikra, right next to the commandment of “love your neighbor as yourself” testifies to this link of preventing brotherly discord. Keeping boundaries clear prevents a confusion of roles.
The Moralistic: The 13th century Sefer haHinuch tells us that when God created the world, each worldly creation was allotted a heavenly authority to guide its own mission and help fulfill its growth potential. The mixing of certain species obstructs these Divine plans and weakens the heavenly powers that govern the earthly creations. We too must be clear on who we are and what is uniquely expected of us.
The Anthropological: The laws of shatnez are positioned near laws relating to other forbidden combinations. Here we have the prohibitions against grafting, of crossbreeding, and of course shatnez. There is a general preference in Torah for keeping entities separate and compartmentalized, and an aversion to combining items of distinct domains. In her work Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas theorizes while explaining the laws of kashrut that the laws are about symbolic boundary maintenance. Prohibited foods do not fall clearly into any category. Similarly, shatnez’s forbidding of wool and linen is the prohibition of the mixing of the animal and vegetable world.
The Animal Rights Perspective: Rabbi Kook explains that the mitzvah of shatnez is to teach us thoughtfulness and sensitivity toward animals. Wool comes from animals, linen comes from plants. The Torah allows us to utilize animals for human benefit and consumption. Nevertheless, we should not see animals as being akin to inanimate objects such as plant life.
Practically speaking, this may all be well and good, but you might still be wondering about how one goes about preventing the purchase and subsequent donning of said ill-combined clothing items.
In my experience, it is mostly men’s suits that need checking. Of course, reading the labels on all clothing items is a good start. Unfortunately, not all materials are listed.
Luckily, in our town, we have our very own shatnez inspector, Rabbi Chaim Tatel. Here is some helpful information about checking for shatnez from his Web site: http://zekainim.com/shaatnez.aspx.
Inspection usually takes 30-45 minutes per suit. Samples are taken from several places, including [from] the collar, [from] inside the canvas, [the]button threads and holes, sleeve tape, and others. The samples are checked by several methods to verify their content. They are then sent to the Shatnez Lab in N.Y. for confirmation. Response time is usually 7-10 days. If a suit is okay, you will be told immediately. If there’s a question, you’ll have to wait for a card from the N.Y. office for the final answer. If shatnez is found in the collar, it can usually be removed. This requires removal of ALL linen fibers. This takes an extra 45–60 minutes. You will be given a verified non-linen stiffener. You then have to take the suit to a tailor for restoration.
Though intriguing reasons are offered for the rationale behind shatnez, the bottom line is that as a chok, a law whose reason is not specified, part of the spiritual lift of its observance is that we are fulfilling it because part of our practice is to sometimes simply do a mitzvah because the Almighty expects it of us. Every so often that trumps all else.