Shatnez

The Biblical prohibition against mixing wool and linen.

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The legal iniquity in the ownership of property is registered in the prohibition of wearing a mixed garment of wool and linen. We are inhibited from the free mixing of wool, which was taken by robbery from the innocent sheep, with flax, which was acquired by equitable, pleasant and cultured labor. The animal will yet rise in cultural status through the control of a higher moral sense, so that its readiness for idealistic participation with man will not be strange or far away (Fragments of Light).

Priestly Shatnez

While the mixing of linen and wool is generally forbidden, the Torah describes the garments of kohanim (priests) as including both wool and linen. Furthermore, the ancient rabbis taught that tzitzit may consist of wool and linen woven together, and that woolen tzitzit may be attached to a linen garment.  (Menahot 43a) Archaeologists have found tzitzit consistent with this description in sites from the first and second century. The permission to wear shatnez in tzitzit emphasizes that, like the priestly garments, tzitzitare worn in the service of God. 

The contemporary Bible scholar Dr. Jacob Milgrom explains as such:

The tzitzit are then an exception to the Torah's general injunction against wearing garments of mixed seed. . .The resemblance to the high priest's turban and other priestly clothing can be no accident. It is a conscious attempt to encourage all Israel to aspire to a degree of holiness comparable to that of the priests ("Tzitzit" in Etz Hayim Humash).

Insofar as wool and linen mixtures, like other forbidden products, belong to the realm of God, these are forbidden for ordinary human use. Such materials are specifically prescribed for moments when human beings are able to transcend the world of the ordinary and enter into the divine world.

Discussions of wearing shatnez in tzitzit apply specifically to tzitzit made with t’khelet, a blue dye that may or may not have been rediscovered in the past decade.  Given that most Jews today do not wear t’khelet in their tzitzit, most Jews also no longer wear shatnez in their tzitzit. 

Modern-day Observances

Modern technology has produced new means of checking clothing for shatnezusing powerful microscopes. The National Committee of Shatnez Testers and Researchers sponsors more than 60 "shatnez labs" in the United States alone, and some shatnez checkers even make house calls. When a lab finds shatnez in a piece of clothing, tailors there are sometimes able to remove the forbidden material and to replace it with a permitted substance. In other cases, the lab may simply tell the owner that the garment is forbidden to wear, but may be sold to a non-Jew.

For the most part, liberal Jews have paid little attention to the laws of shatnez. In the Torah commentary most often used by Reform synagogues, Rabbi Gunther Plaut comments about prohibitions against interfering with creation by mixing species that "such notions are very strange to us who live in the post-Darwinian age (Comment to Leviticus 19:19)."The "Commentary on the Principles of Reform Judaism," passed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2004, however, reinterprets shatnez as a call for ethical production processes:

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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.