By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
The Gemara (Yevamos 4a) discusses the Biblical prohibition against wearing a garment that contains a mixture of wool and linen. The Torah states, “Do not wear sha‘atnez” (Devarim 22:11). The very next verse discusses the mitzvah of tzitzis. The Gemara derives from the juxtaposition of the two verses that one may violate the biblical prohibition of sha‘atnez in order to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzis. So in the Mishnaic era, if someone had a four-cornered linen garment, he would be permitted to put wool tzitzis strings on it. In fact, the Gemara points out later, he would have no choice but to do so. There is a mitzvah to place tzitzis strings colored with techeiles together with the white strings on the corners. These blue-colored strings had to be made out of wool. Accordingly, the only way to completely fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzis with a linen garment would be to place wool strings dyed with techeiles on the corners (in addition to the obligatory white strings).
Sadly, we no longer have definite techeiles, thus we are unable to completely fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzis. Consequently, the Shulchan Aruch rules that we may no longer violate the prohibition of sha‘atnez to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzis. If one has a four-cornered garment made of linen, he should attach linen tzitzis strings to it. (Our tzitzis strings are generally wool.)
Rabbi Akiva Eiger raised an interesting question. Back in the days of techeiles, if one had a four-cornered wool-and-linen garment, would he be able to put tzitzis on it and wear it? The Gemara only discussed putting wool strings on a linen garment or linen strings on a wool garment, but the Gemara did not discuss the fabric content of the garment itself. Rabbi Akiva Eiger explained that even then sha‘atnez was not permitted in the garment itself. There is a “lumdishe” order of operations for tzitzis. The mitzvah of tzitzis is technically to attach tzitzis strings to the garment. (Still, if they were already attached before the garment was put on, that is also fine.) So step number one is to put on a four-cornered garment. Step two, which follows immediately, is to attach tzitzis. In Talmudic times, if one needed to violate the prohibition of sha‘atnez to fulfill step two he was permitted to do so. However, if the garment itself contains wool and linen, there is no license to put on the garment in the first place. Step two, the mitzvah of tzitzis, only comes after the garment is already being worn. So, the mitzvah of tzitzis can’t help with the initial wearing of the wool and linen garment.
Relating to sha‘atnez, Mrs. Tzippy David, a sha‘atnez checker, said that someone brought in some clothing to be checked without looking at the label. The label clearly said that the fabric was part linen and part wool! Though labels aren’t always accurate. In the NCSTAR sha‘atnez lab in Brooklyn, there is a children’s outfit on display. The label said that the content was 55 percent cotton and 45 percent linen. Yet in actuality, there was significant wool content as well. Even if the label was totally accurate, it only refers to the body of the garment, not the accessories. Again, in the NCSTAR sha‘atnez lab there was a display of a “100 percent wool” sweater that had linen pockets sewn onto it. This is a problem because even one linen thread sewn together with a wool garment renders it sha‘atnez.
There are some brands of suits that are virtually always sha‘atnez. I was visiting the Brooklyn lab a number of years ago when a customer walked in holding two suits. Aharon Drebin, who was running the lab at the time, looked at the first one and said “Versace—it’s sha‘atnez.” The second suit was a Hickey Freeman. Once again, Aharon said, “It’s sha‘atnez, but I’ll check just to be sure.” He opened up the collar on the spot and there was a cloth that made the collar stiff. It was linen. Aharon explained that sometimes even cheaper brands of men’s suits have linen collar-stiffeners. He has found sha‘atnez in suits from Hugo Boss, Canali, Ted Baker, and Banana Republic, among others. He was very reluctant to start listing brand names because he might inadvertently leave one brand out and someone would assume it’s not sha‘atnez. Every suit must be checked for sha‘atnez.
Some people order custom-made suits and rely on the assurances of the tailor that there won’t be any linen used in the suits. A lawyer who frequently makes trips to Hong Kong had, over time, purchased ten custom-made suits. He initially relied on the assurances of the tailor and the local populace that the suits contained no linen. He later became wary and brought them into the lab. All ten suits were sha‘atnez. True, the main fabric itself was not sha‘atnez, but the collar and shoulder supports were.
Thinking like a lawyer, he kept all his receipts for the checking and removal of sha‘atnez. He further kept his receipts for the tailoring necessary to mend the suit. The bills came out to around $750. On his next trip to Hong Kong he presented his tailor with the bills and demanded reimbursement. The tailor demurred, but offered two new suits to the attorney. The offer was accepted on condition that these two new suits were absolutely free of linen. The tailor promised and gave his assurances that there would be no linen used in these new suits. Upon his return to America, the new suits were brought straight to the sha‘atnez lab and they were both sha‘atnez.
Aharon explained to me that most of the time these “custom handmade” suits are in fact made in factories with the fabric requests and measurements taken by a tailor. The tailors have absolutely no control over what is used in the collars and shoulder pads. Often the shoulder pads are made out of pieces of material left over from runs of other suits. In some cases the shoulder pad itself is composed of wool and linen because there were scraps left over from a linen-and-wool suit run.
Years ago I had a late-night conversation with Rabbi Yosef Sayagh (Lakewood sha‘atnez lab), though he had a 4:30 a.m. flight the following morning. He was very interested in people becoming more aware about the pitfalls of sha‘atnez in clothing. He said that people need to realize that all linen clothing must be checked. Whether the garment is a woman’s jacket, a man’s shirt, or a child’s dress, they all need to be checked. Many times the appliqué on children’s clothing is not made out of the same material as the foundation and causes sha‘atnez problems. He mentioned also that some people don’t realize that men’s ties could be a problem. Any tie that is made of wool or linen needs to be checked, as very often the stiffener inside the tie is wool or linen. A neighbor purchased a Spanish “100 percent silk” tie made by Richel, and sure enough the lining was composed of wool and linen.
Rabbi Sayagh mentioned to me that people need to realize that some Purim costumes have to be checked as well. Russian hats and uniforms frequently contain sha‘atnez, but he has found sha‘atnez in American navy uniforms as well. Of course, tuxedos (whether purchased or rented) also pose serious sha‘atnez problems.
Let me conclude with this quote from Rabbi Avrom Pollack at the Star-K:
When we speak of wool, we are only referring to wool obtained from sheep or lambs. Other materials, such as camel’s wool, mohair, angora, cashmere, alpaca wool, or vicuna, present no sha‘atnez problems. Similarly, linen refers only to fibers derived from the flax plant, whereas other bast fibers, such as ramie, hemp, or jute, may be combined with wool. With respect to ramie, one should be aware that it is difficult to distinguish this material from linen even with the use of a microscope. Since clothing manufacturers, particularly those from abroad, are guilty of mislabeling the fabric contents, clothing containing wool and ramie should not be worn unless an expert in the field of sha‘atnez has verified that the fabric contains no linen. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.
By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow