Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Much later in the Torah after our parasha, T'rumah, we read of the prohibition against wearing shatnez, fabrics made from combining wool and linen. Thus, without taking the entire Torah in context, one might not be aware, when reading this parasha, that fabrics considered shatnez are used for the mishkan and even the ephod.
Sages and scholars offer many explanations for the biblical prohibition against wearing shatnez. The surrounding context in both references to shatnez, Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11, also include prohibitions against other types of mixtures (Hebrew: kilayim) such as interbreeding and planting different crops together.
A midrash (Midrash Tanhuma B'reishit) traces the prohibition back to the story of Cain and Abel. The brothers each brought an offering to G"d. G"d accepted Abel's offering but not Cain's offering (for no apparent reason.) The midrash speculates that Cain brought an offering of of flax seeds, and Abel brought wool. Jealous, Cain slew Abel, and G"d henceforth decreed that the offering of a sinner (Cain's "linen") should not be mixed with the offering of the innocent (Abel's wool.)
Maimonides suggests that Canaanite priests wore garments of made from a combination of plant and animal materials, and this was the reason the Torah forbade them being worn by the Israelites. At first glance there might seem to be a glaring contradiction here. However, from the beginning, the rabbis noticed that the High Priest's garments could be shatnez, and had already determined that shatnez could only be worn in holy service. (Did you know that tzitzit can be made of shatnez? They can, as long as the tzitzit are also made using t'khelet, the blue dye. You can also use wool tzitzit on a linen garment. More technicalities abound. Some believe linen can only be defined as such when it is made from flax, and wool can only be defined as such when it comes from sheep. Thus cotton linen and camel's wool could be mixed and worn. This wasn't always the case. In times when it wasn't as easy as it is today to determine what is woven into a fabric, the rabbis generally prohibited any fabric mixtures based on the precept of marat ayin - how it might look. I it looked like shatnez, people might think it was shatnez, and that's a good enough reason to prohibit it. Modern technology has allowed the rabbis to relax these standards.)
So clearly the rabbis find no contradiction with what it says in T'rumah. Shatnez is prohibited elsewhere precisely because it is reserved for only very holy usages like the coverings of the mishkan and the garments of the priests.
That rings a little hollow for me. For one thing, if the Rambam is correct, I find it very odd that G"d wanted the priests to wear garments containing shatnez when it was also a custom of the heathens. If the midrashic explanation of shatnez is correct, it is even more puzzling why the coverings of the mishkan and the priestly garments contained shatnez.
I'm not insistent on linearity in the Torah. That the prohibition against wearing shatnez comes much later in the Torah than the verses here in T'rumah that describe how part of the mishkan and priestly garments were made using materials that is shatnez does not trouble me. (I will admit I would find it more troubling if the order were reversed. Or perhaps not. If the prohibition against shatnez came before parashat T'rumah it would be easier, I think, to assert the case that a special exception was being made here for the mishkan and the priests. It might then be the case that what is written in T'rumah serves to amplify and explain the prohibition against shatnez as being related to shatnez being intended to serve only holy purposes. However, I am hoisted on my own petard here, since, if I insist on a non-linear reading of Torah, why does the order matter? Each piece of Torah text informs every other piece of text that came before it or comes after it.)
Modern commentators have offered all sorts of reasons for prohibiting the wearing of shatnez. Among those is the idea that linen is generally the product of cultures that live near rivers and waters where flax and other plants used to make linen grow, whereas wool is more associated with desert and nomadic cultures. So it's Egypt and Israel, not to be mixed. If that is indeed the case, then it doesn't help explain why the mishkan and priests are adorned with shatnez.
So where does this leave me? Scratching my head, as always. Perhaps we'll use Ockham's razor and accept the simplest explanation as best. When it comes to G"d, and matters related to religion however, Ockham's razor might not apply, as Kierkegaard and other philosophers have suggested. William of Ockham himself saw that his razor, in scientific terms, would suggest that G"d does not exist, and suggested that theology relies on faith, not science.
Sorry, but faith alone is not going to help me come to terms with why the priests and the mishkan can be adorned with shatnez. Neither will science alone. Yet I am hesitant to suggest that the answer might be found be creating yet another form of shatnez, or more specifically, kilayim (mixtures,) that of science and faith.
My answer may come in recognizing the realities of shatnez itself. The halakhah does not prohibit one from wearing a wool garment on top of a linen one (or vice versa.) I need not mix the science and the faith. They can work together without being blended. I can wear them both.
Adrian ©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
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