Unraveled Series: Wearing Clothing Made from Mixed Fibers

Welcome to the Unraveled series, a collection of blog posts exploring clothing, the Bible, and its connections to modern living.

This first post dives into a passage that is both well-known and often quoted: Deuteronomy 22:11 which states, “You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together” (NRSV). This passage expands on the law found in Leviticus 19:19 that says, “You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two different kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made from two different materials” (NRSV).

Historically, these verses have both confused readers and been used to perpetuate segregation. Some early scholars believed that God brought order to the world when God separated the species. To mix together unlike things was to violate this order and would be “a symbol of disorder, a reversal of creation.”[1] This, by extension, has led to some scholars viewing these laws as a prohibition against Israel associating with and assimilating to the surrounding nations. In texts found in the Qumran caves, prohibitions against intermarriage and assimilation are explicitly stated.[2] Even in more modern times, certain groups have wielded these verses as support for laws against interracial marriage and racial segregation.

Like any ancient text, context matters in reading and interpretation. The word describing mixed fibers in the Deuteronomy and Leviticus chapters is shatnez. The word has Coptic or Egyptian origins and is best translated as a “mixture of” or “intertying” wool and linen together specifically. There are other forms of kil'ayim (prohibitions against actions like planting different types of seed or plowing with different animals[3]), described in the Torah, but shatnez is the exception to the rule: it was not only allowed but required in priestly garments, some of the tabernacle coverings, and the Parochet (a separating curtain used in the Temple)[4]. This wool and linen blend was set aside for holy purposes and, according to many rabbis, shatnez’ exemption applied only while performing priestly service.[5] 

Additionally, further allowances are made for tzitzit, tassels made of linen with a blue woolen thread woven through the center. This is based on the Torah's juxtaposition of the laws for shatnez and tzitzit.[6] Directly following the passage on shatnez, Deuteronomy 22:12 says, “You shall make tassels on the four corners of the cloak with which you cover yourself” (NRSV). So according to rabbinic Judaism, both laypersons and priests were supposed to wear mixtures of wool and linen all the time. There is also evidence of Jesus following this law and wearing tassels on his outer garments,[7] which indicates he thought these laws were neither irrelevant nor obstructive to living a holy life. 

As one scholar points out, “the tassels are a conscious attempt to encourage all Israel to aspire to a degree of holiness comparable to that of priests.”[8] The act of wearing shatnez fabric typically reserved for holy spaces symbolically signified the call to holy living that walks with a person in every area of their life. In other words, the shatnez of the lay person’s daily life reflects that of the priests in the temple.[9]        

In light of all this, we can think about these verses in new ways. First, the commandments around shatnez should not call us to separateness, but sacredness. Thus, “there is no need to explain the prohibition as a metaphor against disorder or intermarriage. It is but a warning to the Israelite that their holiness is not achieved by penetrating into the sacred realm, but by practicing proper ritual and ethical behavior as found throughout the rest of the chapter.”[10] 

To draw a connection to our clothing, “whether or not one believes in the concept of kosher clothing, the idea of shatnez forces a kind of elevated consciousness into the origins, production, and accessibility of today’s fashion."[11] And if God’s enthusiasm about holiness is equated to an enthusiasm for giving and preserving life[12], this passage can lead us into deeper reflection about the source, production, and disposal of our clothing. Are our clothing purchases leading to abundant life for those in the supply chain? Are we aware of the materials and labor practices behind the clothing we put on every day?

Questions like these can help us build a more ethical world where God’s call to holiness is expressed through our closets and fashion supply chains.

 

[1] Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 17-22: a new translation with introduction and commentary. New Haven; London: Yale University Press. 2000.

[2] https://www.jstor.org/stable/4193043.

[3] Calum M. Carmichael, “Forbidden Mixtures”, Vetus Testamentum, 32.4 (1982): 394.

[4] Exodus 28:6, 8, 15, and 39:29.

[5] Menachot 43a.

[6] Yevamot 4a, Nazir 41b, Leviticus Rabbah 22:10. See also Menahot 39b-40a where this is recorded as the position of Beit Hillel but not Beit Shammai. Rabbinic sources rule this practice as permissible, while kabbalist sources go a step further by encouraging the practice ("Tzitzit made of kilayim?". Kehuna.org. 2016-05-11. Retrieved 2018-04-18.)

[7] Anderson, Cheryl B. Ancient Laws and Contemporary Controversies: The Need for Inclusive Biblical Interpretation. pg. 80. Oxford University Press, New York, NY. 2009.

[8] Milgrom, 1664.

[9] Kosior, Wojciech (2018-07-27). ""Like a Throne of Glory:" The Apotropaic Potential of Ṣîṣîṯ in the Hebrew Bible and Early Rabbinic Literature". Review of Rabbinic Judaism. 21 (2): 176–201. doi:10.1163/15700704-12341342. ISSN 1570-0704.

[10] Milgrom, 1662.

[11] Lorch, Danna. “How Orthodox Jews Observe The Commandment To Not Wear Wool And Linen Together”. The Forward. June 18, 2018.

[12] Milgrom, pg. 12. Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics. A Continual Commentary.

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