The Rabbi's Study

Shatnez: Parts I and II

On May 11, in Rabbi Goldstein’s absence, husband and wife team, Sara Yakira and Elie Aharon, offered the divrei Torah (words of Torah) on parashat Kedoshim, a.k.a. The Holiness Code. Their topic? Shatnez, the enigmatic proscription against wearing linen and wool together. Here’s what they had to say:


Shatnez Part I: Sara Yakira

Shabbat Shalom.

There’s so much to explore in this parshah. I thought I’d begin with everyone’s favorite: Shatnez.  😊

The Zohar teaches that the Biblical word for this combination, “Shatnez,” can be separated into two words “Satan Az,” meaning “the Satan is strong.” The Zohar also states that when someone wears Shatnez, an “evil spirit” lurks within him.

Adapted from Aish.com:

“The Midrash suggests that the reason stems from the story of Cain and Abel. Cain brought God an offering of flax (the source of linen) and Abel brought a sheep (wool). The fusion of these two products brought tragedy and calamity.

“One idea is that the mixing of wool and linen upsets the environmental and/or metaphysical fabric of the universe. God created different species that work together in the symphony of creation. Our job is to respect and appreciate this diversity and help maintain this special orderliness.

“This is perhaps hinted to by the Torah juxtaposing the prohibition of shatnez with the imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Each person must cherish their own uniqueness and not feel threatened by others. Cain did not understand that he and his brother had different tasks in life, different roles in creation.”

I find a strong message in this – we each must strive to uncover our strengths and skills. What each of us has to offer is of value, one no more and no less than another. We are all “differently abled” and if we can pursue paths that make use of what we have to offer, we are in the service of Hashem. And that allows our own holiness to flourish.

And adapted from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

“The Lord said to Moses: “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them, ‘Be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.’” (Lev. 19:1–2)

“This is the first and only time in Leviticus that so inclusive an address is commanded. The Sages say that it means that the contents of the chapter were proclaimed by Moses to a formal gathering of the entire nation (hak’hel). It is the people as a whole who are commanded to “be holy,” not just an elite, the Priests. It is life itself that is to be sanctified…

“What we witness here, in other words, is the radical democratization of holiness. All ancient societies had Priests. The first intimation is in the first chapter of Genesis, with its monumental assertion, “‘Let Us make mankind in Our image, in Our likeness’…. So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:26–27). What is revolutionary in this declaration is not that a human being could be in the image of God… The Torah’s revolution is the statement that not some, but all, humans share this dignity. Regardless of class, color, culture, or creed, we are all in the image and likeness of God.

“Holiness belongs to all of us when we turn our lives into the service of God, and society into a home for the Divine Presence.”


Shatnez Part II: Elie Aharon

Jill Jacobs, in writing for the website My Jewish Learning, offers this.

“While the mixing of linen and wool is generally forbidden, the Torah describes the garments of kohanim (priests) as including both wool and linen. Furthermore, the ancient rabbis taught that tzitzit may consist of wool and linen woven together, and that woolen tzitzit may be attached to a linen garment.  (Menahot 43a) Archaeologists have found tzitzit consistent with this description in sites from the first and second century. The permission to wear shatnez in tzitzit emphasizes that, like the priestly garments, tzitzit are worn in the service of God.”

The contemporary Bible scholar Dr. Jacob Milgrom explains:

“The tzitzit are then an exception to the Torah’s general injunction against wearing garments of mixed seed. . .The resemblance to the high priest’s turban and other priestly clothing can be no accident. It is a conscious attempt to encourage all Israel to aspire to a degree of holiness comparable to that of the priests (“Tzitzit” in Etz Hayim Humash).

“Insofar as wool and linen mixtures, like other forbidden products, belong to the realm of God, these are forbidden for ordinary human use. Such materials are specifically prescribed for moments when human beings are able to transcend the world of the ordinary and enter into the divine world.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs continues:

“If we want to retain a religion in which ritual is harnessed to the energy of moral depth…we’re going to have to go back to those apparently meaningless rituals and demonstrate their moral base. Separating linen and wool is about making distinctions…It’s about separating a holiness that is inherited simply by being from a holiness that is a holiness of striving and of effort.”

Now back to my commentary:

So there are at least two different kinds of holiness that exist in the world.  First there is holiness, distinctiveness and distinction that comes from one’s genealogy of being a priest, which would be inborn. It’s not what you wear, it’s who you are, your identity, when you are being of service. In this case there is simply no shatnez problem to deal with.  In fact, a Cohen’s holiest garments ARE shatnez!  Shatnez in direct service to G!d is itself blessed.  Here, the world acquires blessing by being and serving authentically.

The second form of holiness can be acquired by us non-priests.  It is the holiness of having good intentions for the world, of striving to change it and better it, and of striving to better one’s self as well.  To reveal G!d’s attributes in the world and in ourselves, one day after another.  Making distinctions and acting in favor of the highest good, and finding and revealing G!d in the world.

The distinctions of shatnez are, for me, teaching devices about making distinctions.  Shatnez is a reminder that I have work to do… holy work.  Will I distinguish between linen and wool, watching for a mixture?  Having learned it’s secret, I don’t need to.  But I’ll use the reminder to make better distinctions about myself and what I want to do from day to day, and some days, even moment to moment.

Shabbat shalom.

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