THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Ki Tetze – פרשת כי תצא
September 14, 2019 – יד אלול תשעט
This essay is sponsored by Drs. Amy Fox Griffel & Martin Griffel in honor of Mel Fox’s 80th Bar Mitzvah anniversary. Their generous support of my upcoming book project is most appreciated.
Scripture baldly prohibits an entire category of clothing. “You shall not wear shaatnez, wool and linen together (Deuteronomy 22:11).” Shaatnez is a foreign loan word, possibly of Egyptian origin. In an earlier Biblical passage, the prohibition is grouped together with other forbidden admixtures. “Your beasts you shall not mate with a different kind. Your field you shall not sow with different kinds. And a garment of different kinds of thread, shaatnez, shall not be donned by you (Leviticus 19:19).” While it is possible to interpret the ban on breeding mixed species of animals or growing hybrid crops to mean that, generally, one ought not to tamper with Divinely created natural order, such an interpretation falls short with respect to shaatnez in this important respect: The law does not forbid the manufacture of such garments. It prohibits only their being worn.
In the rabbinic tradition, Biblical “statutes” (חוקים) are those laws for which an explanation is not readily apparent. The Evil Inclination causes otherwise devout Jews to doubt whether those laws serve any purpose; some gentiles may simply ridicule such laws as examples of Judaic silliness. The loyal Jew is bidden to accept the full yoke of the mitzvoth, inclusive of “statutes,” and to concede the he has no right to ponder whether a given inscrutable commandment is deserving of his continued fealty. The Talmud lists five such commandments: the ban on eating pork, the ban on wearing shaatnez, the release of a woman from Levirate marital bonds by means of the spittle of the halitzah ceremony, the leper’s purification rite, and the sending of the scapegoat to Azazel on the Day of Atonement (Yoma 67b). The Midrash expands that list to include: the ban on mixed breeding, the stoning of an ox that gored, the broken-necked heifer ceremony, the redemption of a firstborn donkey, and the ban on meat-milk combinations (Tanhuma Mishpatim 7).
The Talmudic and Midrashic view that shaatnez is an inexplicable commandment was not universally accepted. A first century CE writer, several medieval exegetes, and leading twentieth century academic Bible scholars have discerned a reason, in the broader context of Torah observance, for the ban.
Josephus wrote: “Let not any one of you wear a garment made of woolen and linen, for that is appointed to be for the priests alone (Antiquities 4:8:11).” The Tabernacle curtain, which separated the Holy from the Holy of Holies, was made of, among other materials, crimson-dyed wool and twisted linen (Exodus 26:31). The High Priest’s ephod and breastplate included both wool and linen (28:6, 15). The priestly sash, too, contained wool and linen (39:29). Bekhor Shor explained that because wool-linen attire is reserved for the priestly class it would be inappropriate for ordinary Israelites to wear such clothing; it would be like a commoner’s using the royal scepter. He compared shaatnez to suet and blood. Those parts of the slaughtered animal are reserved for the sacrificial cult and are burned or spilled on the altar. Accordingly, their consumption is forbidden to Israelites (Leviticus 3:17). Also, Scripture bans the preparation for mundane use of oil or spices according to the proportions and specifications of the Anointing Oil or incense (30:32, 37). Similarly, the Talmud teaches that one may not build a house in replication of the Sanctuary, or a courtyard that replicates the Temple’s Courtyard, or a table that looks like the Shewbread Table, or a candelabrum that copies the design of the Menorah (Rosh Hashanah 24a). Hizkuni and Da’at Zekenim followed Bekhor Shor in explaining shaatnez as one of several items that Israelites are forbidden to wear, eat, drink, prepare, or build, as the case may be, so as not to encroach on the prerogatives of the priesthood and the Temple cult.
The verse following the shaatnez prohibition is: “You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself (Deuteronomy 22:12).” Already at an early phase in halakhic history, the juxtaposition of these verses was understood to mean that tzitzit is an exception to the wool-linen prohibition (see Pseudo-Jonathan and Yebamoth 4a). White fringes were to be made of linen; the blue-dyed fringe was to be made of wool. The Midrash notes that for every desirable item forbidden by the Torah, an analogous and similarly enjoyable item is permitted. Among the examples listed is shaatnez; although Scripture bans wool-linen garments, it permits a linen garment to feature a blue woolen tassel (Leviticus Rabbah 22).
The Talmud cites an Amoraic statement that all Jews, including priests, Levites, and Israelites, are obligated to wear tzitzit. The Talmud incredulously wonders why this Amora felt it necessary to issue that ruling. Why would anyone think to exempt any of the three categories of Jews from the tzitzit obligation? Answer: It might have been incorrectly thought that only those Jews who are always forbidden to wear shaatnez have a positive obligation to wear wool-linen tzitzit, and that, therefore, the priests, who do wear wool-linen garments as part of their cultic uniform, should be exempt. The Talmud concludes its discussion by noting that even though the priests are not bound by the shaatnez law during the times that they are officiating at the Temple, at all other times they are bound by it. Hence, they cannot be exempted from tzitzit (Menahot 43a).
Scripture states a reason and purpose for the wearing of ritual fringes. “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God (Numbers 15:40).” How does seeing white and blue-dyed tassels on the hem of one’s garment remind the wearer of his religious obligations or of the need to pursue a holy and godly way of life?
Rabbi Meir explained the unique spiritual utility of tekhelet (Hullin 89a). Tekhelet is similar to the ocean, and the ocean is similar to the firmament, and the firmament is similar to the Heavenly Throne, about which it is said “Under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity (Exodus 24:10).” The Midrash records in the name of Rabbi Hezekiah an even more convoluted explanation in which the ocean is similar to the grass, and the grass is similar to the firmament, and the firmament is similar to a rainbow, and a rainbow is similar to a cloud, and a cloud is similar to the Heavenly Throne, which itself is similar to God’s glory (Yerushalmi Berakhot 3a, Midrash Tehillim 24).
There is a glaring weakness to Rabbi Meir’s theory. For the blue fringe to serve the purpose he posits, the symbolism would have to be fairly obvious to the average Israelite. The lengthy chain of mental associations needed before tekhelet is connected to thoughts of God means that most people will see the fringes and yet remain oblivious to their spiritual purpose. Worse still, Ritba concedes that the various items in Rabbi Meir’s series of connections do not all share the same hue and so the series of associations does not rationally work on the basis of color identity. Instead, Ritba suggests that the sea refers to God’s benevolent act of splitting the Sea of Reeds for the fleeing Israelites, and the firmament to God’s having lowered Himself through the seven heavens when giving the Torah at Sinai. Though this is a nice homiletic interpretation by a Rishon of the original Tannaitic statement, it hardly solves the problem. While gazing at their fringes, Jews through the centuries have not necessarily been thinking about the Theophany.
As explained by Jacob Milgrom, the blue-dyed fringe could serve as a reminder for Jews to lead lives of religious devotion not because of its color but because of its basic composition. It was made of wool. The Israelite who wore a wool-linen garment affixed with tassels was, in effect, wearing a priestly garment. The non-priest understood that he could never officiate at the sacrificial service, but at least with regard to his attire he could be a proud member of the “kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6).” That sense – simultaneously satisfying and frightening -- of elevated religious standing cannot but bring a person to a more intense level of commitment to fulfilling the Divine will.
Milgrom’s theory of the tekhelet fringe is so compelling that one wonders why the Tannaim and Amoraim did not think of it, but instead put forth a comparatively weak theory about mental associations with the color blue. I suggest an historical explanation. When the Temple stood, Jews readily identified wool-linen garments with the priestly costume. For Josephus, living in the final years of the Second Temple era, explaining the logic of the shaatnez ban was a simple matter. It was only after the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the priestly wardrobe that Jews no longer understood why wool-linen clothing is forbidden. Shaatnez became an inscrutable חוק. Having lost the proper understanding of shaatnez, Jewry also lost an appreciation for the exception to the shaatnez rule. The layman who looked at his fringes in the Talmudic era knew that he was supposed to find deep religious meaning in his wearing of that garment, but the basic fact of his wearing a wool-linen combination no longer brought to his mind thoughts of the “kingdom of priests.” Instead, the best the sages could do was to ascribe significance to the color of the woolen thread.
The timeless lesson of the tzitzit, woven of shaatnez, is that, despite different cultic roles assigned to various categories of Jews in the non-egalitarian system of Torah law, every Jew is bidden to develop a positive sense of spiritual self-esteem and a commitment to a life of mitzvoth.