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Couture Conundrums: Must I Check Everything For Shatnez?

Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

Every so often, we notice an alert posted by a shatnez agency, letting us know that an item that should not have a posed a shatnez concern actually contains shatnez. Does that mean that we can never buy a garment without checking it? Why can’t we rely on halachic concepts such as rov (majorities) to obviate the need to check any garment? An in-depth look at changing manufacturing processes answers these questions, and more.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

“The importer told me that the garment was made from a blend of hemp and wool, which should involve no shatnez concern. As there was no authorized shatnez tester in town, I did what I thought was the next-best thing — I brought the garment to a local Torah-observant tailor to have him check it. He carefully checked the threads and guaranteed me that the garment contained no linen.

“Only after I wore the garment many times did I meet a great Torah scholar and mention this incident in passing. The talmid chacham told me that I should not be so certain, and he offered to compare the material in my garment to linen threads he had available. And indeed, it was clear that he was correct. The threads in my garment were made from wool and linen, not hemp, and I had been violating a Torah prohibition the entire time!”

Does this story sound contemporary and familiar? As a matter of fact, this story happened some twenty years before the single-lens microscope was invented in the Netherlands by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.

Set in 1650 in the city of Vilna, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” and perhaps the largest bastion of Torah of all of Europe, this story is recorded in the commentary Beis Hillel to Yoreh Deiah. In those days, the only “scientific” means of checking whether a material was linen or hemp was to take a sample and see if a flame would get it to burn, since hemp is more flammable than linen (Rema, Yoreh Deiah 302:2), although others contested the reliability of this test (Piskei Teshuvah 302:1, quoting She’eilos U’Tshuvos Pnei Yehoshua).

Clearly, then, shatnez issues are not exclusively a result of modern manufacture. But technological and industrial advancement has certainly exacerbated this problem significantly, for shatnez can now be found in everything from sweaters and skirts to scarves, and from bedding and button-loops to baseball gloves.

A HAIRY ISSUE

Before delving into contemporary questions, we must first understand some details of the laws of shatnez.

The prohibition of shatnez exists only if the garment is made from a blend of sheep’s wool and linen. Wool of other species does not a shatnez problem pose. (The term “wool” is defined as hair that is soft and can be used as cloth.) Thus, material made of a mixture of linen with camel, rabbit, or goat hair is not shatnez (Mishnah Kilayim 9:1; see Rambam, Hilchos Kilayim 10:2).

The Mishnah (Kilayim 9:2) records that certain combinations, such as silk and wool, were prohibited because of maris ayin, since this raises suspicion or may be misinterpreted as someone wearing shatnez. The Rishonim conclude, however, that this concern exists only when the material that may be confused with wool or linen is not commonly available, but once people become familiar with its availability no prohibition of maris ayin exists (Rosh, Hilchos Kilayim, printed his halachos to Maseches Niddah).

Most people are surprised to discover that a garment made of a blend of linen and either mohair or cashmere is not shatnez. Why is this? Because neither mohair nor cashmere are made from sheep’s wool, but from the hair of goats! Mohair is processed from the hair of an Angora goat. Although goats of this variety are now raised around the world, they originated in Turkey. (The current capital of Turkey, Ankara, used to be called Angora.)

Cashmere is the wool of the Kashmir goat, which was originally native to central Asia, as its name indicates.

Therefore, if no sheep’s wool thread was mixed into the mohair or the cashmere, the existence of linen in the garment will not make it shatnez.

 

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