Shaatnez: Understanding Irrational Decrees”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Once again, this week, we have combined parashiot–Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. The theme of the second parasha, Kedoshim, is holiness. In Leviticus 19:2 we read that G-d speaks to Moshe and instructs him to tell all the people of Israel, “Kedoshim tih’hee’yu, kee kadosh Ani Hashem Elokeichem.” You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d am Holy. The parasha proceeds to list many, many laws that reflect the notion of holiness, and the means by which the People of Israel can become a Holy nation.

The laws of parashat Kedoshim reflect an extraordinary sense of nobility and exaltedness: the laws of pe’ah and leket–leaving a corner of the field and/or the gleanings of the harvest or the vineyard for the poor, honesty in business, paying the salary of a hired worker promptly, not putting a stumbling block before the blind, not favoring the wealthy or even the downtrodden in justice, not speaking evil against a neighbor, not hating your brother or sister in your heart, properly reproving a wayward person, not being vengeful or holding a grudge, and loving your neighbor as yourself.

In the midst of this ennobling list of mitzvot, the following verse suddenly appears (Leviticus 19:19): “V’hem’t’cha lo tar’bee’ah kil’ayim, sad’chah lo tiz’rah kil’ayim, u’veged kil’ayim sha’at’nez lo ya’aleh ah’leh’chah.” You shall not mate your animal with another species, you shall not plant your field with mixed seed, and a garment that is a mixture of combined fibers shall not come upon you.

According to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, the foremost commentator on the Bible), the laws of shaatnez fall under the category of “chukim”— decrees, commands of the King for which the human being knows no reason. Some commentators, like the Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270), offer insights into the nature of these decrees.

When we look closely at the story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, the words “l’mee’no” or “l’mee’nah“, according to its kind, appear again and again. When the dry land appears and sprouts forth vegetation, herb yielding seeds and fruit trees, the Bible in Genesis 1:11 states: “L’mee’nay’hu” according to its kind. In Genesis 1:24-25: when G-d creates the living creatures, He creates them each according to its kind: each animal, each creeping thing and each beast of the land is fashioned according to its kind.

By emphasizing and reemphasizing “according to its kind” the Torah wishes to define the integrity of each created species. Every tree, each fruit, every animal, even each blade of grass is conferred its own integrity. The human being has to preserve and guard that integrity. The Jew especially is bidden to preserve the boundaries of creation. And so while the human being is duty bound to improve the world and complete the work of creation, human beings, especially Jews, are not permitted to violate the integrity of creation. Hence, in parashat Kedoshim we are taught that it is forbidden to mate different species of animals, whether domestic or wild. Similarly proscribed is the planting of mixtures of seeds in the same furrow, unless the different varieties are separated by a fence or are far enough apart so that each can draw its own nourishment from the ground without violating the other’s nourishment. Likewise, grafting one species of fruit on to a tree of another species, is forbidden.

Perhaps, the most challenging aspect of kil’ayim, the laws of forbidden mixtures, is what we call shaatnez–the prohibition of mixing two types of threads together in a single garment. We learn from a reference in Deuteronomy 22:11, that this does not apply to all fibers, but is limited to the mixture of wool and linen together in a garment. Wool of course, comes from the animal world, whereas linen comes from the vegetable world, once again underscoring the individuality of the species.

As a young boy growing up in an increasingly observant home, the prohibition of shaatnez was not a common concern in our family. It seems that my grandfather, who was a religiously observant tailor, claimed that he never found shaatnez in a garment. Of course my grandfather, who came to the United States from Poland in the early 1900’s to support his wife and six children who were back in Poland, was certainly not a Brooks Brothers tailor. In fact, he probably only sewed garments of very, very poor immigrants. The likelihood of there being expensive linen in those garments was rather remote.

So when I got to Yeshiva University High School, and Reb Joseph Rosenberger, of blessed memory, of the Shaatnez Laboratory of Williamsburg mounted his famed shaatnez campaigns, I began to have my garments checked for wool and linen, and behold none was found. But, in college, I had already started teaching and earning money, allowing me to buy better quality suits. Lo and behold, my clothes occasionally contained shaatnez, usually a linen lining in the collar which needed to be removed. To my great dismay, once the tailor removed the shaatnez from the lining of the collar, the suit was never the same. I must admit that I harbored some resentment at this “irrational” mitzvah.

Over the years I wrestled with this mitzvah and searched for some meaning for myself, despite it being a chok–an irrational decree. I remembered learning an interesting custom of kashrut that’s recorded in the Mesillat Yesharim, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzatto’s (1707-1746) famed ethical masterpiece, The Path of the Just.” Contrary to popular opinion, and the stereotypical caricature of Jewish mothers who say: “Ess, ess mein kind–finish everything off the plate, because there are people starving in Africa. Don’t leave a drop!” Jewish tradition recommends that every time we eat, we leave a sample of our food on the plate, a speck of meat, a drop of potatoes, a little part of the string bean. The reason for this practice is that we should never be perceived as being gluttonous. Every time we eat we must remember that there are people in this world who have no food. And so we symbolically set aside a little bit of food from our plates in order to recall those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Now, while it is true that this food eventually winds up in to the garbage and is “wasted,” it does raise our consciousness to help those who are hungry, and thus is not really wasted.

Applying this lesson to clothes: We who lived in the second half of the 20th century and now the early 21st century, have no true appreciation of what a gift proper clothing is to the human being. I recall that when I was sitting shiva for my parents of blessed memory, I was not permitted to put on a freshly laundered shirt, because it was considered a source of joy. Mourners are expected to wear the same clothes for the entire week of shiva, with the exception of Shabbat. How uncomfortable it made us feel. Even the thought of it today arouses discomfort. After all, how is a freshly laundered shirt a source of joy? Consider that only 60 or 70 years ago, laundering clothes was a very difficult task. Especially in the midst of winter, it meant going out in the freezing cold to wash the garments. Bringing back a freshly laundered garment was indeed a source of great joy. We take it for granted, but we shouldn’t.

There are people, hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions of people in the world today, who do not own a fresh change of clothes. In our extraordinarily affluent world, there are impoverished people who barely own a loin cloth, let alone a fresh change of underwear. Perhaps, through the law of shaatnez the Torah is telling us: If you wear a garment that is made of wool, leave the linen for the poor. Similarly, if you are fortunate to wear a garment made of linen, leave the wool for the poor. Be sensitive, be aware, that there are people throughout the world who do not have the endowments and “luxuries” with which you are blessed.

And so, in this way, our Torah teaches: “Kedoshim tih’hee’yu,” be a Holy People. Be a sensitive people. Be aware of G-d’s gifts to humankind. Act in His image, perform an act of loving-kindness by sharing your blessings with those who are less fortunate.

May you be blessed.