TETZAVEH - THOU SHALT COMMAND
By Vicki Greif
February 19, 2005
In reading today's parsha, something caught my attention : The
I was really struck by this and I'd like to share it with you.
We learn that sacral vestments to be worn by Aaron and his sons
doing priestly service to God should include blue, purple and crimson
yarns and fine linen - (Exodus 28:3-5). This was mentioned at
least 4 times in Tetzaveh, lest we forget.
The High priest is to wear a long robe woven entirely of woolen
thread (JPS Commentary on Exodus 28:31, Nahum Sarna,ed),
( Exodus 28:40): they also wear tunics, sashes and turbans for
dignity and adornment. (Exodus 28:39): The tunic is the fringed
tunic of fine linen, and the head dress, also of fine linen.
They are wearing linen and wool!
Last week's parsha, T'rumah, details the curtains of the
Tabernacle. The fabrics covering the section of the tabernacle that
contains the Holy of Holies also contain blue, purple and crimson
yarns and fine linen (Exodus 26:1-6) . Rashi's commentary on
this is: ...there are 4 kinds of material in each
thread, one of linen and three of wool (and each thread was 6
fold).....these 4 kinds of material are twisted together
(making 24 strands) forming the fabric.
Now let's talk about Jewish laws. They include Hukkim.* These are rationally inexplicable rules - we follow them, not
because they make sense - but because they are opportunities to do
God's will. It's only for the love of God that we follow them - a
One of them is the prohibition of Sha'atnez expressed in
parashat Ki Tetzei: "Do not wear Sha'atnez -wool and linen together"
Another term for this prohibition is Kil'ayim as expressed in
Hirsch says: Wearing clothing is one of the things that separates
humans from animals. Sha-atnez teaches us to be holy in the way
Sha-atnez is a mixture, a garment made of linen and wool, a
blending of vegetable and animal product.
Prohibitions on mixing categories is something the Torah forbids.
It is a way of tampering with the divinely ordained order of creation.
Maimonides explained that the wearing of mixed garments was
forbidden since heathen priests wore such garments (Guide to the
So we have a commandment which forbids Jews from wearing a mixture
of wool and linen, and yet as we read in the Torah, the priests'
garments and the fabrics in the tabernacle are made of wool and linen
intricately intertwined as vividly described by Rashi.
So how do we explain that?
I read a commentary on Ki Tetzei in Etz Hayim which explains that
this prohibition applies only to the laity. The priests, in their
ministry, do wear garments of such mixtures and a priest
who does not wear his garments is liable to the penalty of death,
according to a commentary by Nehama Leibowitz. (Nehama Leibowitz
on Exodus p.527). She also stated that Ramban compares the high
priests' vestments to those worn, in those days, by royalty and quotes
parallels from Joseph's coat of many colors. The function of these
garments was to enhance the dignity and prestige of the wearer and his
sacred office in the eyes of the people..
Josephus suggests that the reason for the prohibition was to keep
the laity from wearing the official garb of the priests. (Etz
Hayim p. 1118)
So now we know: It is permitted for priests to wear garments of
mixed texture prescribed by the Torah when performing priestly service
in the sanctuary (Yoma 69a). Other examples of the permitted
mixing of linen and wool:
It is permitted to use sha'atnez shrouds for a corpse (Nid
Because of a general principle that positive precept overrides a
negative precept, it is permitted to attach a blue woolen zizit to a
linen garment (Men. 40a).
In addition to these explanations, let me share with you another
compelling reason proposed by
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) who was the first Chief
Rabbi of Eretz Israel.
Rav Kook on Sha-atnez- A Glimpse into the Future
According to Rav Kook, it is not that these mitzvoth have no
reason, or no reason that we can comprehend. Rather, they relate to a
future reality different from our own. At that future time, the
purpose of these decrees will become clear.
In other words, this type of mitzvah serves to morally prepare us
for the future.
An important aspect of this future is the Cabalistic idea that with
the elevation of the entire universe, the animals will also change.
Animals will achieve a state similar to the current level of people. This belief plays a central role in Rav Kook's writings in
many areas: vegetarianism, Termple offerings, and understanding
decrees such as sha'atnez, and not eating milk and meat together.
Now going back to linen/wool, Rav Kook continues:
The use of linen from the flax plant does not raise any ethical
dilemmas. But the use of wool necessitates a mild censure from the
standpoint of absolute morality:
"Man, in his boundless egocentricity, approaches the poor cow and
sheep. From one he seizes its milk, and from the other its
fleece......There would be no impropriety in taking the
wool were the sheep burdened by its load; but we remove the wool
when its natural owner needs it! Intellectually, we recognize that
this is theft, oppression of the weak at the hands of the strong."
The moral offense applies primarily with regard to the sheep's
In order to distinguish between these two fibers, and prepare us
for the sensitivity towards animal welfare that we will need in future
times, the Torah decreed that linen and wool should not be worn
together. Utilization of the flax plant and manipulation of sheep
are not-in absolute terms-morally equivalent.
(But) This applies when the wool is used for private
consumption. But if the wool is designated for divine
service - as in the High Priest's clothes- then the principle of
"bechol me'odecha," serving God with all our might, all our
possessions, takes force. Here, it is appropriate that from their
own free will, the animals will contribute their part for the sake of
the universe's spiritual elevation.
From this, I learn that certain commandments such as Hukkim which
might not have a rational basis to us in our present life may yet have
a significance at a higher level or in a more perfect world for which
we all strive.
And one more thing, when we go home today and greet our pets - our
fish, dogs, cats, rabbits, iguanas,.... remember that they, too, may
play a part in Tikkun Olam.