Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Holy Shit, Shatnez?

Fifty-two years as a nominal Jew and I just found out about shatnez--sometimes spelled shatnes, sometimes shaatnez. I was walking down Coney Island Avenue, in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, home to many orthodox Jews, and I saw the sign in a tailor's window: "Have your garments shatnes checked." Shatnes, I wondered, what's that? Clearly it had something to do with some obscure Jewish practice or law. Tefillin checking I knew about. Tefillin, or phylacteries (which always makes me think of prophylactics) are leather boxes containing miniature scrolls with texts from the Torah, accompanied by leather bands for attaching them to your arms and forehead. Once, on the Lower East Side, I saw a sign in a Judaica shop window: "Tefillin Checking While U Wait." Tefillin have to be checked to make sure that the scrolls are in good shape, no rips or holes, etc., and that none of the lettering is obliterated. But what was shatnes checking?

I looked shatnes/shatnez up and learned that it refers to a prohibited mix of linen and wool in clothing. So it's sort of like kosher for garments. A suit with a wool and linen blend, to the ultra-observant, may well be as anathema as a cheeseburger. A few years ago the Times did a profile of a shatnes tester who refuses to eat in restaurants.

There are two biblical passages that specifically reference shatnez:

"You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of shatnez (Leviticus 19:19)."


"You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed. . . You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together. You shall not wear shatnez--wool and linen together (Deuteronomy 22:9-11)."


As with many ridiculous religious customs, there are multiple explanations for where the rule came from. According to Wikipedia, "Early writers, like Maimonides, argued that the prohibition was a case of the general law (Leviticus 20:23) against imitating Canaanite customs. Maimonides wrote that: 'the heathen priests adorned themselves with garments containing vegetable and animal materials, while they held in their hand a seal of mineral. This you will find written in their books.'"


"Where's your Moses now?"

But why settle for dissing those relatively modern heathen priests when there are those who'll put the blame squarely on old Cain and Abel? A difference of opinion about what kind of offering to make to the Alleged Deity (a sheep for Cain and some flax for Abel) led to calamity. In his usual inscrutable and capricious manner, the A.D. of the O.T. accepted Abel's offering, but not Cain's, so Cain, jealous and enraged, killed his brother. So heaven forbid you should have a little linen in your wool suit.

Some commentators say that shatnez is a hok, i.e., a law without any logical explanation which nonetheless must be obeyed. Yes, Kafka was Jewish. Could that tailor on Coney Island Avenue be running a hok shop?

You could also go with this positively new-agey explanation from the 13th century. According to the official website of The Shatnez Testers of America:

Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona wrote in his book "Sefer HaChinuch - The Book of Mitzvah Education" the reason why it is forbidden to mix wool and linen together is because it destroys the spiritual fabric of the universe. This can be explained as follows: Each and every thing on earth, except for man, has its own spiritual force that influences it. When some of these earthly items are mixed together, they cause their spiritual counterparts to become entangled. Once entangled, they cannot perform their tasks as originally designed, thusly destroying the spiritual fabric of the universe. However, after the explanation, the author tacked on "We still need a Mystic to explain this." (Sefer HaChinuch - The Book of Mitzvah Education #62)

I've polled most of the Jews I know since I found out about shatnez, and none of them had ever heard of it. And one of them even attends synagogue every week. Kosher we all know about, that ridiculous set of restrictions that denies so many the pleasures of suckling pig, cuban sandwiches, dungeness crab, bacon, xiaolongbao, oysters, and butterfly shrimp. But holy shit, shatnez?

If you're concerned that you might be the victim of shatnez, this resource may come in handy.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great piece! That Leviticus was the ultimate buzzkill. If my cattle want to mate with "another kind," I say live and let live. - Arthur Chertowsky

11:19 AM  
Blogger David Erlewine said...

This is great, man, and I say that as another nominal Jew. I tried e-mailing you a bunch of times from work but other than the initial contact we made...I kept getting bounce backs that your e-mail isn't working. Ugh. Your stuff in Elimae is killer. Looking fwd to reading more.

7:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once one has accepted the Torah (the bible) as Divine, than everything is the absolute truth since it derives from G_d's will which is obviously the absolute truth. At that point it doesn't really matter if the mortal human intellect can rationalize it. I suggest before casting arrogant opinions rooted in ignorance do some serious sincere Jewish religious research and than you will humbly accept what is true reality.

10:42 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

I'm a little late in commenting, but in case others read this, here goes my view based on my minimal education. I take articles like this with a grain of salt, just some observations of an individual, but others will find it an affront so I'll say my piece. Yes, shatnez is a hok. Ultimately, all laws are to be accepted as a hok, because once you start rationalizing, you can rationalize for and against anything. Most observant actually are sensitive about shatnez and fully aware of it. It all depends on who you know. Like most other things in America, though, Judaism was in an upheaval when people immigrated en masse decades ago. The infrastructure for a viable observant lifestyle is still under construction, thus the word is still getting out on shatnez testing as a reality and not folklore. Just as in the kashrut of food, individuals cannot rely on their own personal judgement in these matters. Manufacturing is a very complex process these days with many sources, and therefore we need some sort of "kosher regulation".

With that, "holy ****, shatnez?" is a concept the less observant have difficultly grasping. These are among the mitzvot that have kept us distinct as Jews -- in our food, clothing, speech -- which, if you read in the five books and beyond, are common themes. How did Pharoahs daughter know that Moses was a Hebrew? In the movie, it was because of his blanket. Okay, that's not the bible, but even the film producers grasped the idea. The book of Daniel starts with him not eating from the king's food and ultimately rising to greatness.

But why be separate? Not because we're elitists. Because we've been tasked with maintaining a tradition of what it means to be human and moral -- what Cain and Able foresook, leading to the demoralization of civilization to the point the Gd brought that flood. So jokes can be made about shatnez, Cain and Able, and the rabbinic commentators, but consider my comments and understand the writers citations differently.

8:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you consider this... Shatnez is the mixing of 2 species-Wool and Linen. Hashem destroyed humanity during the Flood because of because of Nephillim mixing DNA with humans (Beresheit 6). Today, we are again 'mixing species' by cloning and transhumanism. The law of Shatnez is to remind us not to mix species. And I believe that our ancient ancestors knew this, but it has been lost somehow.. It is not CHok, this is very simple to understand when you think about it. Makes sense!

11:54 PM  

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