Shaatnez: Understanding ‘Irrational’ Decrees”
(updated and revised from Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5762-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Once again, this week, we have double parashiot–Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. The theme of the second parasha, Kedoshim, is holiness.

In Leviticus 19:2, G-d speaks to Moses and instructs him to tell all the people of Israel, קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם . “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d am Holy.” The parasha proceeds to list numerous laws and ritual practices 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 convey an extraordinary sense of nobility and exaltedness. Here is but a sample: 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 list of ennobling mitzvot, the following verse unpredictably appears: Leviticus 19:19, בְּהֶמְתְּךָ לֹא תַרְבִּיעַ כִּלְאַיִם, שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרַע כִּלְאָיִם, וּבֶגֶד כִּלְאַיִם שַׁעַטְנֵז לֹא יַעֲלֶה עָלֶיךָ . 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, the foremost commentator on the Bible, the laws of שַׁעַטְנֵז shaatnez, mixing wool and linen in the same garment, and the laws of כִּלְאַיִם , the laws of forbidden mixtures in general, fall under the category of חוּקִים –decrees, commandments of the King for which there are no logical given reasons.

Some commentators, such the Ramban attempt to 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 לְמִינוֹ or לְמִינָהּ , according to its kind, appear repeatedly. When the dry land appears and sprouts forth vegetation, herb-yielding seeds and fruit trees, the Bible in Genesis 1:12 states: לְמִינֵהוּ , 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 proclaims the integrity of each created species. Every tree, each fruit, every animal, even each blade of grass is conferred its own integrity. It is the task of the human being to preserve and guard that integrity. The Jew especially, is bidden to preserve the boundaries of creation. And, so, while humankind is duty bound to improve the world and complete the work of creation, Jews in particular 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 כִּלְאַיִם , 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 combining 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 1900s to support his wife and six children who were back in Poland, was not a Brooks Brothers tailor. In fact, he probably only sewed garments of poor immigrants. The likelihood of there being expensive linen in those garments was rather remote.

So, when I arrived at Yeshiva University High School, and Reb Joseph Rosenberger, of blessed memory, of the Shaatnez Laboratory of Williamsburg, came around to all the classes to speak about the prohibition of wearing garments with Shaatnez, I began to have my garments checked for wool and linen, and behold, none was found. By my college years, however, I had already started teaching and earning money, enabling me to purchase better quality suits. These more expensive 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, at times, harbored resentment at this “irrational” mitzvah.

Over the years, I wrestled with this mitzvah, searching for some meaning for myself, despite it being a חוֹק –an irrational decree. I remembered learning an interesting custom of kashrut that’s recorded in the name of R. Elazar in Talmud Sanhedrin 92a: “Whoever does not leave over bread on his table after his meal, will never see the sign of blessing.” Contrary to the popular and stereotypical caricatures 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 whenever we eat, we leave a tiny bit 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 morsel of food from our plates in order to recall those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Now, while it is true that this food may eventually wind up in the garbage and is “wasted,” it does raise our consciousness to be sensitive to those who are hungry.

Applying this lesson to clothes: We, who now live in 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 evokes discomfort. After all, how is a freshly laundered shirt a source of joy?

Consider that only a century ago, laundering clothes was a very difficult task. Especially in the midst of winter, it meant going out in the freezing cold, often to a frozen body of water, 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 reality, 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, set aside the wool for the poor. Be sensitive, be aware, that there are people in many parts of the world who do not have the endowments and “luxuries” with which we are blessed.

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

May you be blessed.