The Inconsistency of Shatnez

clothingYou shall not wear a garment of cloth made with two different kinds of thread [or, two kinds of stuff] mingled together[1]

I know this passage regarding shatnez [command regarding wearing clothing of mixed fibers] comes from Parsha Kedoshim, which we shall read on the 14th of May 2016. Until this week, I considered the mitzvah of shatnez to be a chok. I will explain why this command should be considered an edot instead.

Commands in Torah can be Subdivided into three categories:

  • Mishpatim [laws, singular mishpat] are laws that humanity would have devised even if they had not been Divinely inspired.
  • Edot [testimonies, singular edah] are laws that can be rationally explained; however, had G‑d not commanded them, they would not have been created.
  • Chukim [decrees, singular chok] are laws that transcend our understanding; we obey them simply because they are the word of G‑d.

When Leviticus 19:19 says we’re not to wear clothing of diverse kinds, what does that entail?

  • Rayon and spandex?
  • Silk and cotton?
  • Polyesters?
  • Cotton and wool?
  • Wool and linen
  • Canvas and rubber (like in shoes)?
  • Leather and lace?

The answer to all these are, yes. These are all clothing [beged in Hebrew] of mixed cloth, but this is only half the story. The other half is located in Parsha Ki Tetze, which we will read on 17 September 2016:

You shall not wear clothing woven together with two kinds of threads, wool and linen together[2]

With this second verse, we are provided a biblical conundrum. One passage says, two different kinds of thread, and the other states, two kinds of threads, wool and linen. What do we do with the passage in Deuteronomy that says, wool and linen? We have two real choices.

  • wool and linen are examples of two kinds of thread that shall not be woven together.
  • wool and linen are the two kinds of thread that shall not be woven together.

Additionally, is there an easy way to determine what one must do when a seeming discrepancy like this appears in the Biblical text? I’m happy to report that there is an easy rule of thumb.

G-d made Torah to be relatively easy to perform as long as we are in the right community setting. It says, This commandment I command you today is not too hard for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, so we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it[3]. Further it says, For this is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess[4].

This means the Torah was given in order to provide us opportunities of obedience, not opportunities of avoidance. Sadly, this point is often lost on those who glance into the Jewish world from outside, because I’ve heard many times how the rabbis have made it easy to ignore the Torah through a series of rabbinic avoidances. Let me explain.

When a positive command is given twice and the wording changes between the occurrences, the differences are considered to be examples of how one can obey the command. For instance, Leviticus 11:9 speaks about fish that can be consumed. Leviticus adds, in seas or in rivers, over the similar passage in Deuteronomy 14:9. Since this command is a positive command [a “thou shalt” command], we know seas and rivers are simply examples. This indicates that ponds, lakes, fish farms, and any water source discovered or created in the future are equally valid water sources. On the other hand, the extensive lists of birds that are forbidden to consume, is considered an all-encompassing list because it is a negative command [a “thou shalt not” command]. This explains why turkeys are a permissible form of poultry. The list of land animals neglects many ruminant and split-hoofed animals like buffalo, elk, musk oxen, antelope, reindeer, yaks, and giraffe, but these are still considered permissible because, being a positive command, it doesn’t have to list each and every permissible example.

All that was said to get to this one point: since the command of shatnez is a negative command, we know the phrase, wool and linen are the sole kinds of thread that shall not be woven together. Nothing else is forbidden. However, since we are in Parsha Tetzaveh, your time would not be intentionally wasted talking about it unless its application applies to this week’s Torah portion.

And they shall make the ephod of gold, and blue, purple, and scarlet yarns, and of fine twined linen[5]

And the skillfully woven band on it shall be made like it and be of one piece with it, of gold, and blue, purple, and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen[6]

You shall make a breast piece of judgment… …In the style of the ephod you shall make it — of gold, and blue, purple, and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen[7]

You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue… …On its hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet yarns, around its hem[8]… …You shall make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, ‘Holy to Hashem.’ And you shall fasten it on the turban by a cord of blue… …You shall weave the coat in checker work of fine linen, and you shall make a turban of fine linen, and you shall make a sash embroidered with needlework[9]

These passages all have a common thread, no pun intended. The commonality is found in the Hebrew phrase, techelet ve’argaman tola’at shani veshesh moshezar, which is commonly read as, blue, purple, and scarlet yarns, and fine twined linen. At first blush, this phrase doesn’t help much, but they contain important information: techelet, argaman, and shani are wool dyed blue, purple, and scarlet. Therefore, the passages detailing the priests’ Yom Kippur clothing tell us they all contain shatnez. Why is this permissible there in the Mishkan and Mikdash [Tabernacle and the Temple] service, but not in everyday clothing[10]?

The last half of Exodus details the construction of the Sanctuary, the furniture, the tent structure, the altar, the courtyard, the oil, the priestly clothing, and the incense. All of these items were consider holy and were to be used exclusively for the service of the Temple. Therefore, one could not choose to make a menorah just like the menorah Betzalel made for the Tabernacle. Neither can one cannot decide to construct a mizbeach in the backyard just like the mizbeach in the Tabernacle courtyard. Likewise, one cannot make clothing for himself to look just like the Cohen Gadol [high priest] as he officiates the Yom Kippur service. The kilayim, the shatnez, the mixing of wool and linen, are forbidden, not because they are evil or because they somehow interfere with the body’s electrical system, they are forbidden because shatnez is for holy items dedicated to Hashem and it is not to be used in a common or profane manner! This is why this command is not a chok, but an edah instead[11]. Also, a consistency begins to appear: that which is holy is not be used in a common or profane manner, and this includes the wearing of shatnez or kilayim.

[1] Leviticus 19:19d

[2] Deuteronomy 22:11

[3] Deuteronomy 30:11-14

[4] Deuteronomy 32:47

[5] Exodus 28:6

[6] Exodus 28:8

[7] Exodus 28:15

[8] Exodus 28:31-33

[9] Exodus 28:36-39

[10] When R’Dimi came [from Palestine] he reported: Concerning the girdle of the common priest there is a dispute between Rabbi and R’Eleazar b’Simeon, one said it was of kilayim [wool and linen in the same web], the other said it was of fine linen. It may be ascertained that it was Rabbi who said the girdle was made of kilayim, for it has been taught: There is no difference between the high priest and the common priest except in the girdle, this is the opinion of Rabbi. R’Eleazar b’Simeon said: Not even in the girdle is there any distinction. Of what time [does this teaching speak]? If during the rest of the year, there are many points of difference, [as e.g.] the high priest [officiates] in eight garments, the common priest in four; you must say, then, that [the time discussed is] the Yom Kippur. We can tell you: In fact the discussion deals with the other days of the year, and it refers to such garments which both wear alike [the only difference being the girdle].

When Rabin came [from Palestine] he reported: Everybody agrees that the girdle of the high priest on the Day of Atonement was made of fine linen, and during the rest of the year of kilayim. The discussion concerned only the common priest’s girdle, both on the Yom Kippur and during the rest of the year; concerning that Rabbi said it was made of kilayim and R’Eleazar b’Simeon of fine linen. R’Nachman b’Isaac said: We also have: Upon his flesh. Why the repetition of ‘he shall put on?’ To include the mitre and the girdle for the removal of the ashes, this is the opinion of R’Judah. [b.Yoma 12b]

[11] This equally applies to tzitzit. Originally intended to contain white linen and blue wool, rabbinic limitations now have linen tallises with linen tzitzit and wool tallises with wool tzitzit because the only proper tzitzit allowed to be shatnez is one with techelet. Since no one seems sure the proper recipe for make techelet, white non-shatnez tzitzit are used on tallises.

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