The Prohibition of Sha'atnez

  • Rav Michael Hattin







The Prohibition of Sha'atnez

By Rav Michael Hattin





With the reading of Parashat Kedoshim, the shift in focus of Sefer VaYikra continues apace.  While the first five parashiyot of the book primarily relate to the world of the Mishkan and the Kohanim who minister within it, the final five parashiyot address the larger world of the people of Israel.  Thus, the first half of the book addresses the sacrificial service (VaYikra, Tzav), the dedication ceremony of the Mishkan (Shemini), the abstruse but Temple-related topics of Tum'a and Tahara (Tazria, Metzora), and the awesome service of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement (Acharei Mot).  The second half of the work, in contrast, considers the prohibition of sacrifice outside of the precincts of the Mishkan, forbidden sexual relationships (Acharei Mot), various laws of social, moral or ritual character (Kedoshim), the holiday cycle (Emor), the Sabbatical cycle and related agricultural laws (BeHar), and finally the blessing and the curse that seal the covenant and the book (BeChukotai).  While the division is certainly not hermetic, it is nevertheless quite pronounced, so that the recurring introductory phrase of the first half is often "Speak to Aharon and to his sons," while of the second it is almost invariably "Speak to the people of Israel."


One of the most unusual laws that is recounted in this week's Parasha is the prohibition of mixed kinds, particularly as they relate to garments:


Observe My statutes – do not crossbreed your livestock with other species, do not plant your field with diverse species, and do not don a garment that contains a forbidden mixture of fabrics ("beged kilayim sha'atnez") (19:19).





While the Torah here indicates the prohibition of mixed fibers and relates it to the larger matrix of other forbidden mixtures, it does not spell out specifics.  That is left for the repetition of the law that occurs in Sefer Devarim, Parashat Ki Teitzei.  There, the Torah again discusses the matter within the context of crossbreeding and plant hybrids, but this time designates two fabrics in particular:


Do not plant your vineyard with mixed kinds, lest you must forfeit the fullness of the seed that you have planted along with the yield of the vineyard.  Do not plow with an ox and a donkey together.  Do not wear mixed kinds ("sha'atnez"), WOOL AND LINEN together (Devarim 22:9-11).


If we consider the matter in its entirety, then, there are actually five discrete prohibitions that are categorized as "mixed kinds": 1) crossbreeding animals, 2) planting diverse seeds in the field, 3) planting diverse seeds in the vineyard, 4) plowing with diverse species, and 5) wearing a garment of wool and linen.  In neither place does the Torah provide a rationale for these prohibitions, designating all of them in our Parasha as "Chukim" or statutes that do not possess an obvious and logical basis.  Perhaps we may find a common basis for all five prohibitions, an underlying principle that encompasses the entire group.  We notice for instance, that most of them are related to the world of agriculture and animal husbandry, rather than to the world of the homestead or of the city.  The prohibition of wearing a garment prepared from wool and linen, however, seems unconnected to this principle, unless we are referring to its production rather than to its use.  





The prohibition of combining wool and linen stands alone in another important respect.  While no exceptions exist for the prohibitions of crossbreeding and cross planting (at least in the land of Israel), tradition maintains that there is one situation in which the donning of a sha'atnez garment is permitted, namely the tzitzit or ritual tassels of white and blue thread that the Torah enjoins the people of Israel to affix to the four corners of their garments (see BeMidbar 15:37-41).  In particular, it is this ritual thread of "techelet" or blue, the dying process for which was long-lost but recently rediscovered, that necessitates the special dispensation.  This is because according to Torah law, the "techelet" thread was made of spun and twisted white wool that was then dyed with a blue pigment derived from the blood of an unusual sea mollusk – now identified (with at least scientific certainty) as the murex trunculus, a marine gastropod that was the basis of the lucrative blue-purple dye industry that flourished in the eastern Mediterranean basin in ancient times.  This blue thread was placed with other white threads upon the corners of the garment.


At the same time, the Torah maintains that strictly speaking, only garments of either wool or linen necessitate the placement of these fringes (Devarim 22:11), and while the blue thread must be made only of wool, the white threads may be spun of linen.  The combined effect is to theoretically sanction a linen garment that has tassels of wool, or else a wool garment that has tassels composed of wool and linen tied together.  Of course, this allowance exists only when the mitzva of tzitzit is observed in its ideal form, i.e. when the thread of blue is available and affixed.


The Scriptural basis for this exception is the passage quoted above from Parashat Ki Teitzei: "Do not wear mixed kinds ("sha'atnez"), wool and linen together" (Devarim 22:11).  The following verse states: "You shall make tassels upon the four corners of your garment with which you shall cover yourself."  The juxtaposition of the prohibition of sha'atnez with the mitzva of tzitzit was understood to imply a contingency in which the mixture was not forbidden.


It should be pointed out that there was another situation in which a mixture of wool and linen could be worn, this time relating to the Kohanim.  Of the eight ceremonial garments worn by the High Priest during the performance of his daily ritual service, three – the breastplate, vest and belt – were woven from cords spun from a mixture of threads of gold, blue (wool), purple, crimson and twisted linen.  His other garments – the shirt, robe, headband and turban were made of pure fibers or metals only.  Of the four garments worn by the regular Kohen, only the belt contained the mixture (according to some opinions – see Tractate Yoma 12b), while the pants, turban and shirt were made exclusively of pure linen (see Shemot Chapter 28).  The question is therefore twofold: 1) what is the basis for the prohibition of sha'atnez?   2) What is the reason for the exceptions of the tzitzit and the priestly garments?


Concerning the basis of the prohibition, the commentaries have offered a number of possibilities.  The main issue that divides them concerns the larger context of sha'atnez, that is the other prohibitions of diverse seeds and animals within which the matter is mentioned.  Is sha'atnez to be regarded as part of that more inclusive matrix, in which case the basis of its proscription would not be fundamentally different from that of the related injunctions?  Or, perhaps, does sha'atnez stand alone, notwithstanding its geographic location in the text?





The Rambam (12th century, Egypt) adopts the first approach, for he claims that the "reason for the prohibition of sha'atnez is because at that time such a type of garment was popular among the idolatrous priests, and figured prominently in their rituals…The matter was important to them, for with such garments they would conjure and perform their known idolatrous rites, and the Torah therefore outlawed the practice for all, for the Torah comes to extirpate their acts completely" (quoted by the Ramban, 13th century, Spain, on VaYikra 19:19).  In other words, the prohibition of sha'atnez is predicated upon its idolatrous associations, and therefore has little or nothing to do with the other examples of mixed kinds that the Torah forbids.  Of course, the matter of the priestly garments and the tzitzit create a special difficulty according to the Rambam's explanation, for if the intent of the sha'atnez prohibition is to root out the practices and beliefs of the idolatrous priests, why condone and even mandate the practice among the Kohanim that minister to the God of Israel?  After all, in other Temple matters, the Rambam emphatically insists that its rituals stand in absolute contrast to those of the pagans.  Concerning the blood service, for example, Rambam (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:46) explains that its prominence in the ceremony of the Temple and its placement upon the altar are to negate the views of the idolaters who contrastingly held animal blood in contempt in their services.





Many other commentaries adopt the second approach, searching for a rationale against the backdrop of the other prohibitions that are linked to sha'atnez by context.  Their line of thinking is stated most succinctly by the Rashbam (Shelomo ben Meir – grandson of Rashi, 12th century, France):


"Do not crossbreed your animals" – according to the way of the world and in response to the heretics, (I would explain that) just as the text commanded, at the time of their creation, that each species ought to produce offspring according to its kind (see Bereishit 1:11,21,24), so too it enjoins our interaction with the world with respect to its animals, fields and trees.  This applies as well to the plowing of the ox and the donkey, for these constitute two species.  Also, this explains wool and linen mixtures, FOR ONE IS DERIVED FROM SPECIES OF ANIMALS WHILE THE OTHER IS A PRODUCT OF THE SOIL AND OF ITS YIELD… (commentary to 19:19). 


In a similar vein, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) explains that:


We may not do violence to animals to altar the work of God.  Therefore the text states: "Observe My statutes" for we must guard each species so that it is not crossbred with another…as for the field and the garment, these are commemorative, just as we have many mitzvot in remembrance such as the festivals of Pesach and Succot (to recall the Exodus from Egypt), tzitzit (to remember to observe the laws of the Torah), shofar (to remember God's sovereignty), the mezuza and the tefillin (to remember to teach one's children the ways of God)… (commentary to 19:19).


In other words, the various prohibitions concerning the mixing of species are meant to impress upon us the transcendence of the Creator.  God's work of fashioning each species in accordance with His will must not be altered by human intervention, for that would constitute a provocative and unacceptable act of hubris.  In all of those areas of our lives in which we act as stewards of the Creation, namely with respect to the plants, trees and animals over which we exercise power and authority after the manner of our Creator, we must be especially careful to not overstep our limits by usurping the role of God.  For the Rashbam, a similar line of reasoning applies to the sha'atnez, for we must respect the distinctions that God has drawn between the animal (wool) and plant (linen) worlds by not seeking to impose an artificial unity between them.  As for the Ibn Ezra, the matter is somewhat more symbolic – we abstain from sha'atnez in our garments because it serves as a constant REMINDER of the larger principle at hand, just as the rituals of Passover serve to remind us of the underlying truth of the Exodus.  After all, Ibn Ezra might posit, the Torah does not prohibit mixtures of cotton and wool or cashmere and linen, nor need it do so, since even one prohibited mixture can admirably perform the work of serving as a reminder.  While compelling in other respects, these explanations unfortunately again fail to address why an exception ought to be made for the tzitzit and the priestly garments.





Finally, Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach (13th century, France) offers an intriguing insight into the prohibition of sha'atnez that succeeds in answering at least our second question:


"A garment of mixed kinds" – some explain that the reason for the prohibition is because the priestly garments were fashioned from wool and linen, as we have learned that "shesh" (mentioned in the context of those garments in Shemot 28:6, et al) is linen, while "techelet" is wool.  This would then be similar to the prohibitions concerning the fat and blood of the animal (VaYikra 7:22-27), as well as the prohibition of preparing anointing oil or incense after the manner of the Temple (Shemot 30:30-33, 37-38), for in all of these cases it is as if one makes profane use of God's scepter (commentary to VaYikra 19:19).


Chizkuni, like Rambam before him, views the prohibition of sha'atnez as a freestanding observance that is only linked to its context by the associative idea of "mixing."  But in contrast to Rambam who may have admirably viewed the prohibition as a reaction against idolatry but created a larger exegetical problem in the process, the Chizkuni adopts a diametrically opposing view.  The garment of sha'atnez is not forbidden because of its idolatrous links, but rather because of its prominence in the service of the Temple!  And just as the Torah proscribes certain acts by the layman precisely because it seeks to preserve the unique status of God's habitation, so too mixtures of wool and linen are curtailed because these are the very fibers that are used to fashion the sacred vestments of the ministering Kohanim.  Of course, Chizkuni's approach would accord well with those commentaries that also see in the tzitzit intimations of priestly grandeur, for some of them explain that the techelet of the fringes constitutes an emphatic statement by the Torah that all of Israel must strive to serve God as a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Shemot 19:6).


In the end, it seems, none of the quoted commentaries fully succeeds in answering all of the questions, thus preserving sha'atnez's rightful place as a "chock" or Divine statute that defies comprehensive analysis.  Nonetheless, each one of them contributes to our understanding, and highlights the fact that while the Torah's laws may be definitive, they are certainly not one-dimensional.


Shabbat Shalom