The Biblical prohibition against mixing wool and linen.

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The laws of shatnez refer only to sewing wool and linen together in the same garment; they do not restrict wearing, for instance, a wool sweater with linen pants. The rabbis did extended the prohibition against shatnez to sitting on cushions made of shatnez or using towels or dishcloths made of shatnez, lest the material rub off onto one's clothing.

The laws of shatnez are considered so important that one who sees another person wearing shatnez is supposed to strip the offending garment from the wearer, even in public and even if the wearer is one's rabbi. Some legal authorities, however, softened this stipulation, saying that if the person wearing shatnez is doing so unintentionally then one should wait to speak to this person privately (Shulhan Arukh 303:1 and comment of Moshe Isserles).

Explanations for Shatnez

To the rabbis of the Talmud and later generations, shatnez was the paradigm of a hok--a law without any logical explanation. Defining shatnez as a hok, however, has not stopped generations of commentators from attempting to deduce some spiritual meaning from this strange law. The mystics, for example, saw mixing wool and linen as a symbol of mixing divinity with impurity, or as diluting the heavenly powers (Tikkunei Zohar 109a; Zohar III:86b; Toledot Yitzchak to Leviticus 19:19). Maimonides, the consummate rationalist, speculated that the prohibition against shatnez is a reaction to the custom of pagan priests to wear wool and linen together.

One midrash traces the prohibition against shatnez to the story of Cain and Abel. In the Torah, Abel brings God an offering of sheep, and Cain brings some sort of plant offering. For reasons not explained in the biblical text, God accepts Abel's offering, but rejects Cain's. Angry about this show of preference, Cain murders his brother. The midrash specifies that Cain brought God flax seeds, and Abel brought wooly sheep. After Cain killed Abel, God decreed that "the offering of the sinner should not be mixed with the offering of the innocent (Midrash Tanhuma B'reishit 9:9)."

Some have viewed the mixing of wool and linen as an unnatural tinkering with the divinely ordained world. Nahmanides warned about anyone who wears shatnez "it is as though this person thinks that God did not perfect God's world, and that this person wants to help God in the creation of the world by adding creations (Ramban, comment to Leviticus 19:19)." The thirteenth century Sefer haHinukh explained that, at the time of creation, God assigned a heavenly power to guide each earthly creation to fulfill its own mission and growth pattern. The mixing of certain species interferes with these divine plans and weakens the heavenly powers that govern the earthly creations (Mitzvah62).

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook believed that the commandment of shatnez offered a glimpse of a future world, in which animals will achieve a higher status:

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.