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Shatnez Shock

Pondering one of the Torah’s woolliest rules

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(Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; sheep photo: Jurij Skoblenko; linen photo: The Bees)

I’ve been thinking about shatnez recently. That’s the Torah’s inexplicable prohibition against wearing fabric containing a mixture of wool and linen. I say “inexplicable” because neither Leviticus nor Deuteronomy, the two books that mention this rule, explain why we’re supposed to follow it. That makes shatnez a chok, a law given without a reason (as opposed to a mishpat, a law whose reason is explained). It’s the theological equivalent of “Because I’m the mommy, that’s why!”

The reason shatnez seems resonant to me right now is that I have a kid whose laws governing clothing are as strict as the Torah’s. She won’t wear anything made of wool, denim, khaki, or corduroy. She abhors anything with tight sleeves or a tag in the back. She cannot abide shoulder straps with any lace, appliqués, or detailing that might touch her shoulders. She smites (metaphorically) all halter-tops and any sundress that ties behind the neck. She disdains the narrow crewneck, the turtleneck, the elasticized sleeve, the wide waistband.

But Maxie’s laws are mishpatim, not chukim. Her reasoning is known. She has sensory issues, and all those sartorial items feel horrible to her.

I understand her logic, but what’s the Torah’s? Maimonides theorized that it had to do with pagan priests who wore robes made of a wool-and-linen combo. Heaven forbid anyone confuse us with those guys. Another explanation is that shatnez hearkens back to the offerings Cain and Abel brought to God. One brought flax (the source of linen) and the other brought a sheep (the source of wool), and look how well their story came out. So, uh, let’s not do that.

According to the scholarly Jewish textual resource known as Wikipedia, some people believe that shatnez was based on scientific reasoning. Wool shrinks when it gets wet, and linen doesn’t, so if the fibers were combined it might lead to perspiration and other hygiene issues (I’m unclear on this part). And we Jews are all about the hygiene. Which is why we all have asthma and neuroses today.

Even the derivation of the word shatnez is unclear. One theory holds that it’s a mash-up of three words: shua, which refers to combing raw fiber; tuvi, the process of spinning fiber into thread; and nuz, the weaving of thread into cloth. The Zohar, Madonna’s favorite kabbalistic text, says that shatnez comes from two words: “Satan az,” or “Satan is strong.” Do not mess with Satan by bringing together products that should not go together.

In the Coptic language, spoken in ancient Egypt until the 7th century or so and somewhat similar to Hebrew, shatnez sounds an awful lot like sasht nouz, meaning false weave. A Greek version of the Torah from the era of Alexander the Great translates shatnez as false or adulterated.

For a little clarity (OK, any clarity) on the subject, I checked in with Amy Kalmanofsky, assistant professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “No one entirely knows why we have shatnez,” she said, “but it’s obviously related to purity being the ideal. The world is created in order, and order reflects the divine will and the divine universe. Mixtures are chaotic—they introduce unholiness in some way. But the interesting thing is that the high priests wore shatnez, and the curtain in the mishkan, the Tabernacle, was made with wool and linen. In those cases you could say that shatnez was the opposite of unholy; it was indicative of holiness. Only the sanctified people and spaces are holy enough to be draped in it.” In ancient times and today—aren’t the sacred and the profane often awfully close together?

Kalmanofsky mentioned the 1966 book Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas. It’s a seminal work in social anthropology, looking at the interplay of the sacred, the clean, and the unclean in different cultures. Douglas wrote that the laws of kashrut are about maintaining symbolic boundaries, and the foods that are prohibited are the ones that don’t seem to fall clearly into any category. (Lobsters? Sea insects! Pigs? Why won’t you chew your cud, you cloven-hoofed freaks!) Similarly, shatnez may be just another way to guard the boundaries of purity.

This being America, you can hire people to guard these boundaries for you and shatnez-check your wardrobe. Visit the Shatnez Testers of America web site for more info—you’ll find shatnez alerts (tragic news: Barneys New York’s suits are shatnezville), guidelines for what items need to be checked (the halachic jury is still out on baseball gloves), lists of shatnez-testing laboratories in various countries. Shatnez checkers with special Good Housekeeping Seals of Shatnez can take samples from fabric (apparently without damaging the garment) to send to the shatnez lab, where they’re examined under low-powered microscopes to identify the fibers. Some shatnez-laden clothing can be de-shatnified for a small fee.

But while you can control the shatnez in your wardrobe, you’ll find it’s a lot harder to control your kids’ innate temperament and predilections. No one knows why some kids have sensory processing mishegas. Some people think it’s a construct, not a real thing. You know, like religion.

And as with  religion, when it comes to Maxie, I’ve decided to simply obey her laws. Her big sister’s vile, impure clothes are boxed up and put into storage for my little niece. I buy Maxie loose cotton dresses and leggings, mostly from (tagless) Hanna Andersson and Old Navy. I just discovered a new line of clothing designed by a Brooklyn special-education teacher and fashion lover (with help from her pals, a designer for Calvin Klein and a former designer for Michael Kors and Isaac Mizrahi), aimed at kids with sensory and tactile processing sensitivity. Everything’s made of super-soft cotton, with flat seams, loose collars, veggie-ink-printed labels, and a roomy fit.

Maxie has rules, and I love her, so I deal. And I hope that by dealing, I can keep some of her pain at bay. Shatnez, too, is about keeping chaos at bay. And of course, you never really can. But we all have different levels of tolerance for disorder, and we all have to find our own way in the world.

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Stop Arab Imperalism says:

It’s very nice to find an informative article on Tablet with love of Torah and lack of anti-Semitism.

Alexander Diamond says:

So if I call shatnez a meaningless crock that makes me an anti-Semite?

Barry A. Swan says:

M. Ingall writes: ” Another explanation is that shatnez hearkens back to the offerings Cain and Abel brought to God. One brought flax (the source of linen) and the other brought a sheep (the source of wool), and look how well their story came out. So, uh, let’s not do that.” Well, why not?
The origin of the Jewish people lies in an environment where there were both herders (wool and skins) and farmers (linen and eventually cotton). These two groups did not get along. They each wanted to use the land in their own way and the other’s way became a sacrilege. Think of the cattlemen and the nesters on the American frontier and their fights which were the plot of many cowboys movies and TV programs. These fights were often quite vicious.
So it is not strange that these conflicts found their way into traditional Jewish stories.

Roisin Gorman says:

I had a scarf knitted for a soldier who went to Afghanistan last winter. The military has guidelines that scarves or other knitted/crocheted items MUST be all natural fiber, no acrylic blends even if blended with wool because the acrylic will melt onto the soldier’s skin if they are next to hot equipment. Now there’s a modern-day reason for not mixing/blending yarns. However I think it is more involved with the prohibition of not mixing paganism with Judaism so a modern-day equivalent would be do not mix eastern mysticism or horoscopes, magic arts, tatooing, tarot cards, fortune telling, amulets etc with Judaism. G-d and pagan practices don’t mix. That’s what got the House of Israel, then later on the House of Judah expelled from Eretz Israel.

Ralbam says:

Keep in mind that “shatnez” has a quadriliteral root (not the typical Semitic three letter shoresh) indicating probable foreign origin.
Also keep in mind that many of these exotic prohibitions were simply reactions against specific pagan temple rituals.

The milk/meat separation practice is one example. In the early 1950’s excavations at a Canaanite site near Ras Shamra on the south coast of Lebanon yielded a text describing a temple ritual of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk on the altar. It used language remarkably similar to the Torah. Clearly the Torah text is admonishing the Bnei Yisrael not to behave as their idol-worshipping neighbors did. Voila, a couple of millenia later we cant’s eat a cheeseburger, thanks to centuries of collective rabbinical amnesia.

Find an ancient culture in the region that prescribed ritual garments woven of mixed species and look for a word like shatnez in their linguistic archives and we’re likely to find a similar explanation.

HaSoferet says:

Linsey-woolsey, a fabric made of linen and wool and used to make clothing and quilts, was in wide use in Colonial America.

Greenberg says:

I find this article mean and mean-spirited, ridiculing Jewish tradition for no good reason that is apparent, and I am surprised that people who consider themselves cultured would want to read a magazine like this.
I am ashamed when I see a fellow humans express themselves in a way that mocks the beliefs of others.

Rivkah bat David says:

Leviticus 19.19 gives us three admonitions. Don’t let the cattle interbreed; don’t sow our fields with mixed seeds; and don’t wear a garment of mixed materials.
Considering all three, it appears to me these teach us something about purity, and they teach us that HaShem has provided all that we need. If we needed a Liger, or a Chiweenie, He would have created one (oops, two of each!). If we needed cotton/polyester, He would have created such a tree. He is our sufficiency, and He has provided everything we need. Whatever the other benefits of shatnetz, this certainly could be one.

Many of these prohibitions arose as a means or reminder that we are a separate people. Some, I think, are based on not treating animals in a cruel fashion. Others, prohibit appearing like our non-Jewish neighbors. How the Rabbi’s have extrapolated these messages into laws for everyday life in modern times, are many times questionable to me.

Ms. K says:

@Rivkah bat David,
Indeed, I would agree – the modern-day interpretation of shatnez would seem to forbid genetic engineering, i.e. the transferring of genes between species.

A more traditional reading would say that it exemplifies the Jewish view that man must seek to bring order into the world. Separation and purity increase holiness.

Ian Campbell says:

A possible reason that shatnez was prohibited could be the same reason that the special “holy anointing oil” was forbidden to be reproduced, it was for holy use only. Now Josephus says that the curtain or veil seperating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was made of materials, plural???

HaSoferet says:

I’ve always found it odd that many in the traditional Jewish world are content to believe that HaShem’s revealed wisdom stopped with the Torah. If HaShem indeed created us all he made us into what we have become. That includes the millennia of human intellectual development that has resulted in scientific discovery and other kinds of creativity. As long as such discoveries are used for the good of human kind I say that HaShem intended for us to make them and use them.

As a semi-aside, I remember that long ago at the dawn of the Interwebs I emailed a question to Ask the Rabbi about genetic engineering — this was back when there was talk about splicing a pig gene into a tomato. Would such a tomato be kosher? The rabbi’s answer was yes, because the gene would have undergone so much change in the engineering process. Now I think about that same question from a broader perspective and wonder whether any “mixing” procedure would be in accordance with Jewish ethics. What if such intermingling proves dangerous to the environment or to people with allergies or to other species in ways we haven’t considered yet?

Norman Kabak says:

Wonderful article, articulate and the comments too, save for one Griper are reasonable.
I recall, as a little boy buying a suit at Barney’s, and having it tested for shatnez. Those were the days when you would have a pair of long and short pants to go with the jacket. don’t remember the price though.

An easy fast to all.

Chanah Yael bat Avraham says:

I appreciated this thoughtful and thought provoking article. While some may think the author ridiculing our Torah tradition, I believe she was simply acting as we all should: think about the whys we do what we do. This method of Jewish self-discovery plays a role in our ability to survive several thousands of years with a message to tell. We are definately a peculiar but wonderful people. — As for Rivkah bat David’s comments, I love your statement that HaShem is our sufficiency. While I love what great minds have provided about the Lulav, I humbly differ with those teaching the lulav represents the personalities of B’Nei Israel. I believe the four kinds represent Who HaShem is to His people. The resilient strong weather proof palm provides shelter from rain and shade from sun; the tree bends and often survives the strong storm –> He alone is our Shelter. The myrtle has astringent properties used medicinally to cleanse and some varieties have a soap-like property –> He alone is our Salvation. The willow provides a substance from which comes aspirin which subdues pain, fever, blood clots, and heart attacks –> He alone is our Healer. The etrog –> smells wonderful the bright color makes us happy, the taste a bit sweet yet bitter, and its meat filled with life sustaining vitamins, minerals, and water. –> He alone is our Sustenance. To grown a straight beautiful etrog, the tree limb must be gently bowed for the fruit to hang straight down…bend it too far, it breaks…so to speak, a bending of wills in order to bear good fruit. We wave our Lulav to every corner of the Earth and Universe…to the skies above and to earth below. If one believes in Lulav personalities theory, perhaps our waving means to “release” ourselves to HaShem’s Will and Care…perhaps, our waving means our teaching Torah to the World…perhaps, it is simply a means to Praise Him with the simplest items…simple remainder, too, that the poor live simply so give charity.

David Harmon says:

Wonderful article! I can feel for your daughter’s sensory issues — let’s just say I had the reason figured out by halfway through your list of forbidden items.

You comment “In ancient times and today—aren’t the sacred and the profane often awfully close together?”

Definitely! The common element is _tabu_ — the untouchable, the forbidden. Holy or unholy, the _tabu_ represents something that’s dangerous to contact, either because it’s anathema to one’s god(s) — or privileged, reserved for the temple or other trappings of the god. Either way, the magical aspect is the same — those who violate the prohibition have disrupted the boundaries of spiritual life — since that challenges the authority of the priests, it Must be Punished.

And yes, one culture’s holy thing is often forbidden to their rivals, and early Judaism did a *lot* of that. Much of the Kashruth is about differentiating the early Hebrews from their neighbors and competitors.

David Star says:

What a lovely, delightfully written examination of a “Chok” which we have lived with for generations, along with the many thou shalts and shalt nots.
Also Kol Hakavod to the many comments the article aroused.Learned, witty and informative.

Zelda says:

You are a sick individual who bears out the reason for horban bayit sheni: sina’t chinam

Binke says:

I particularly like the Cain and Abel explanation but instead of using that as an excuse to indulge in prohibitions, that should be the very reason to come together. For until and unless we set aside some of our centuries old prejudices there will never be peace in the Middle East.

Delighted to see shatnes addressed here thoughtfully and with humor. We took it on too, visually – check it:

Wendy says:


Thanks for taking me back to a time when I had to deal with my youngest daughter’s “bunchie sock” syndrome. I spent what seemed like years and years of my life smoothing down socks, shopping for shoes that felt just right and pulling boots on and off multiple times before heading out into the snow. Who knew from sensitivity issues? I thought my daughter was just a tad crazy. In spite of that, I took her discomfort level seriously enough to honor and respect her feelings. This allowed us to keep the “chaos at bay” and come up with many unique lessons which developed her problem solving skills.

PS. Today, as an adult, my daughter still wears her socks inside out to avoid the toe seam. And I eventually realized she wasn’t a tad crazy.

Witty and bright article. Interesting how some readers moved into a serious realm that was certainky unintended. I enjoy reading comments to Tablet articles. And Greenberg–lighten up!

VHJM van Neerven says:

I am extremely curious:
Author seems to think khaki is a material like wool; or a weave like denim and corduroy are.
Wherever did one get the notion of khaki being something like that??
Khaki is a color, or even quite a variety of colors, as far as I have ever known. And I am not so young now.

J. Davis says:

I am a Torah observant gentile searching for truth. I recently started changing my wardrobe over to 100% linen thinking I was doing good only to be saddened at the realization that these store-bought garments are made with mostly poly/cotton mix and other synthetic threads for the seams,hems,ect. A theme throughout the Scriptures is keeping separate from the “unclean”, not mixing this, not mixing that for what ever reason. It seems the mentioning of mixing linen and wool was just ONE example being listed. To go with the “theme” of other passages it seems clear we should stay away from wearing any garment made with ANY kind of MIXED threads.

Simon says:

This may be too late for J. Davis to read, but I don’t believe you need to extrapolate beyond what the Torah (in the full sense, according to Rabbinic teachings) prescribes or proscribes. It is for that reason we have the laws as they are–to teach us the necessary limits. Otherwise you’ll go crazy trying to find them. This is the common complaint of non-observant Jews, that the religious take things to no end, but that’s in their eyes. It is for this reason, too, that we take the laws as hukkim, because reasons can be twisted to no end–either adding unnecessary stringencies or abandoning the laws altogether through reason, as many modern interpretations of Judaism do in part or full. A common example: “In those days, you had to collect wood for fire and strike rocks together and it took a lot of work, but today…” …you still have no permission to light a fire. But you can set lights to timers.

moshe says:

you all have it wrong.and no i am not arrogant or haughty.THE TORAH NEVER INTENDED FOR US TO UNDERSTAND A CHOK. that is just the point. if you mock it or deride it or call it archaic ..who cares one including Solomon the Wise could understand a is g-d’s will.just
do take your cancer medications even if you do not understand have faith in your doctors even though they are constantly reversing themselves.but who would begrudge a cancer patient of their faith?…i wish this sick old world would stop begrudging all of us who recognize our sad condition, of the faith we have in g-d’s love of his people and humanity. don’t mock shatnes. it might come back to bite you.

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Is this command only about wool and linen or other fabrics too? What can we explain about a jacket with some cotton and polyester? about a dress with spandex and rayon? Thank you :)


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Shatnez Shock

Pondering one of the Torah’s woolliest rules

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