The prohibition of sha’atnez, which the Torah presents in Parashat Ki-Teitzei (22:11), forbids wearing garments made from both wool and linen. The Mishna in Masekhet Kil’ayim (9:8) interprets the word “sha’atnez” as a contraction of the words “shu’a, “tavui” and “nuz,” which refer to the three basic stages of producing garments: combing the wool or flax, making threads, and weaving the threads together. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar then adds that the final of these three words – nuz – also alludes to the severity of violating the law of sha’atnez. He suggests that the word “nuz” may be understood as, “naluz u-meiliz hu et Aviv she-bashamayim alav.” The Rambam explains this to mean, “He deviates from the truth and distances from himself the Almighty’s compassion.”
Why do Chazal so strongly emphasize the special severity of violating this prohibition? What is it about sha’atnez, in particular, that causes “the Almighty’s compassion” to be “distanced”?
The Rambam explains that wearing sha’atnez does not satisfy any particular desire, and for this reason it is considered especially sinful. Since fulfilling this law does not require resisting temptation or overcoming natural instincts, Chazal viewed sha’atnez violations with particular severity.
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Mussar Ha-mishna, adds another possibility. The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (113b) tells that Rabbi Yochanan would refer to his clothing as “mekhabudetai” – “that which gives me dignity.” It is through the clothing we wear that we bring ourselves dignity and respect. For this reason, Rav Ginsburg suggests, Chazal viewed sha’atnez violations with such severity. By wearing sha’atnez, at least symbolically, one in effect seeks to bring himself respect through a violation of God’s laws. The gravity of sha’atnez lies in the belief that one can bring honor to himself by acting in a way that God proscribes. According to this understanding, Chazal here teach us that we cannot possibly ever view a violation of God’s will as “respectable” in any sense of the term. Violating God’s will is a source of shame, not honor, and we must never conceive of the possibility of earning respect by transgressing the Torah’s laws.
Rav Ginsburg then proceeds to add another possible explanation. Chizkuni, in his Torah commentary here in Parashat Ki-Teitzei, suggests that the Torah forbade wearing sha’atnez because the kohanim’s special garments consisted of wool and linen. The Torah seeks to preserve, in a sense, the kohanim’s special status of distinction by forbidding others from wearing attire that has a quality resembling that of the priestly garments. If so, Rav Ginsburg suggests, then wearing sha’atnez symbolically represents a person’s assuming a stature of distinction that he does not deserve, and this is why Chazal viewed the violation of this law with such severity. Rav Ginsburg writes, “One who dresses in these garments, which are especially designated for the kohanim, dresses in a distinguished cloak that is not befitting for him, and there is no more despicable quality than this, for every person must know his place, and one who does not know his place is abominable in the eyes of the Almighty.”