July 18, 2024
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July 18, 2024
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Some things in life should not be mixed, like business and pleasure, drinking and driving and Capulets and Montagues. You also should not mix vinegar and bleach (together they make toxic gas) or vinegar and baking soda (together they make a bomb) but mixing vinegar and olive oil is fine (together they make vinaigrette). In the Jewish world, there also are things that should not be mixed, like milk and meat, matzah and chametz and kohanim and corpses. These prohibited combinations have relatively clear rationales but there is another type of mixing that is a bit more mysterious: shaatnez, the prohibition against mixing wool and linen.

The term “shaatnez” (also spelled “shatnez”) refers to a piece of cloth containing both wool and linen and it comes straight from the Torah. Specifically, Vayikra 19:19 states in pertinent part: “uveged kilayim shaatnez, lo yaaleh alecha” which is commonly translated as “neither shall there come upon thee a garment of two kinds of stuff mingled together.” The shaatnez anti-mixing rule is repeated at Devarim 22:11, which in Hebrew reads “lo tilbosh shaatnez, zemer ufishtim yachdav“ and is commonly translated as “Thou shalt not wear a mingled stuff, wool and linen together.” The Talmud, at Mishna Kilayim and elsewhere, has plenty to say about the intricacies of shaatnez but unraveling the mystery of shaatnez is far more difficult than unraveling a spool of wool. While some are brave enough to delve into the details shaatnez, others are leery of pulling on that thread.

For the record, shaatnez is officially one of the 613 mitzvot. (On most lists, it is number #367.) Some might argue that if violating Shaatnez is your worst avera (sin), then you probably will be in decent shape on Yom Kippur. Others might argue that every one of the 613 mitzvot is on equal footing so you can’t pick and choose. For example, just because you refrain from theft (#467) and murder (#482) does not mean you may destroy fruit trees wantonly (#604).

Believe it or not, the shaatnez anti-mixing rule has spawned a cottage industry of shaatnez checkers. It is unclear whether such shaatnez checkers are actually licensed or even regulated but there are vendors who advertise themselves as having a “shaatnez laboratory,” which is almost as cool as having a cholent armory or a rugelach reactor. These shaatnez testers apply scientific procedures to inspection of garments and other items potentially containing shaatnez. One fair question is whether you may wear shaatnez as part of a shaatnez-themed Purim costume. (The answer is probably “no.”) Another fair question is whether shaatnez has ever come up during a red-carpet celebrity interview:

Q: So, tell us who you’re wearing?

A: The shoes are Louis Vuitton, of course. The necklace is Tiffany and the dress is Shaatnez & Gabbana.

One could argue that shaatnez is not the only facet of Jewish life that requires testing. In fact, it probably would be nice to have a testing service to check, on a regular basis, that (1) your sukkah is structurally sound, (2) your shabbos table setting is communally competitive; (3) your dreidel has only one gimmel (nice try, cheater!); (4) your blind date is not meshuga (unless you’re into that); (5) your bar mitzvah throwing candy is not cruel and unusual; (6) your wedding band is not lip-syncing; (7) your wedding table assignments do not place mortal enemies in close proximity to each other (unless both are your mortal enemies); (8) your Instagram posts and Tweets will not humiliate your loved ones; (9) your shaloch manos are not overly unhealthy; and (10) your bat mitzvah logo is not trademark infringing.

In general, wool derives from animals such as sheep or lamb whereas linen derives from plants such as flax stalks. Thus, the shaatnez anti-mixing rule, when boiled down to its most basic level, prohibits the wearing of garments derived from both animals and vegetables. Luckily, the shaatnez anti-mixing rule is not a culinary restriction, which is especially fortunate for those who enjoy Chinese food. Imagine the following:

Waiter: May I take your order?

Customer: I’ll have the beef with broccoli.

Waiter: I’m sorry, we don’t serve that here.

Customer: Ok, how about the beef with snow peas?

Waiter: Sorry, also not available.

Customer: Really? Well how about the Kung Pao beef?

Waiter: Sure, we can do that, but without the spicy chilies.

Customer: But that’s what puts the “pow” in Kung Pao beef!!!

Waiter: I can replace the chilies with extra beef.

Customer: So, essentially, I’d be ordering beef with beef.

Waiter: Precisely! But we can spice things up a bit.

Customer: With what?

Waiter: A side-order of beef.

Customer: Oy vey!

Final thought: Did you hear about the incredibly frustrated and desperate rabbi who was struggling to explain the mitzvah of shaatnez? He was hanging on by a thread. Did you hear about the customer who was misled by a shaatnez checker? Some say he had the wool pulled over his eyes.

By Jon Kranz


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