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Home » K'doshim, Ki Tetze, Passover

Say No to Linen

Submitted by on April 1, 2012 – 3:07 amNo Comment | 2,750 views

The Mixture of Wool and Linen

Why are Jews forbidden to wear garments that contain wool and linen? A typical Jewish response would be, “Why ask why?” And truthfully such a response isn’t far off the mark. (1) This prohibition is known as a chok, Hebrew for edict, a law for which G-d provides no reason and expects us to accept on faith. Yet, Jews have always enjoyed speculation, and this case is no different. (2)

Our sages suggested this might be related to the original sacrifices offered by Cain and Abel. The Torah relates that Cain offered produce and Abel offered sheep. Abel’s sacrifice was offered with love and was accepted by G-d; Cain’s offering was brought begrudgingly and was rejected. (3) Since wool grows on sheep and linen is made from fibers of the flax plant, which grows from the ground, proscribing the mixture of wool and linen reminds us to follow Abel’s example and reject that of Cain. (4)

By now you are wondering how any of this relates to Passover, stay with me, and I’ll get right to it. You see, dear reader, Maimonides offered his own perspective on the prohibition of wool and linen mixtures. He argued that in the Biblical day such garments were popular among idolatrous priests and the Torah seeks to prohibit all idolatrous customs. In fact, Maimonides testified that in the twelfth century, when he lived in Egypt, such garments were popular among idolatrous priests.  (5)

Now, why were wool and linen garments considered appropriate for idol worship and why was this particularly popular in Egypt? Ah, dear reader, this line of questioning draws us directly into Passover.

Cain and Abel

Our sages taught that Cain and Abel offered their sacrifices on the fourteenth of Nissan. Their father, Adam, informed them that on this day the Jewish people would offer a Pascal Lamb to thank G-d for their redemption from Egypt and he suggested that his sons also offer a sacrifice to G-d on this day. (6)

Rather than suggest that they offer a lamb to simulate the offering Jews would make on this day, Adam let his sons choose their own offering. This was his way of probing their characters and identifying the spiritual composition of their souls. If they would offer a sheep it would tell him that they identified with the plight of the Jews and rejoiced over the future exodus. If their offering would resemble or symbolize Egypt he would know that they identified with the enemies of G-d.

As it happened Abel rejoiced for the Jews and thus offered a sheep to resemble the Pascal Lamb. Cain identified with Egypt and thus offered produce. Adam understood Cain’s offering as a plea to the Almighty that He change His mind and allow Egypt to triumph. You see, our sages taught that Cain’s soul was the root soul for all future wicked souls, and Abel’s soul was the root soul for all future righteous souls. The Midrash specifically described the wickedness of Cain’s spiritual progeny as those who reject G-d, claiming to have their own source for water. (7)

To us, this sounds like a perfect description of the ancient Egyptians. When Moses approached Pharaoh for the first time to deliver G-d’s demand that the Jews be liberated, Pharaoh replied, “Who is G-d that I would hearken to His voice?” (8) Our sages taught that Egypt felt arrogant and secure on account of the Nile River. With such a plentiful supply of water, they were confident in their ability to overcome every obstacle and survive any threat without assistance from a metaphysical G-d. (9) This is precisely the description of Cain’s spiritual progeny who don’t need G-d because they have their own water source.

Cain, the spiritual father figure of the Egyptians, could not rejoice over the liberation of the Jews. To him this was a tragedy. Egypt represented the human ability to depend on ingenuity and nature’s resources without the need for supernatural intrusions by G-d. Jews represented the worldview that humanity is entirely dependent on G-d and that without G-d the human is nothing.

Cain couldn’t permit this worldview to survive let alone flourish, but if Jews were to be liberated that is precisely what would happen. To intercede on behalf of Egypt Cain offered a product from the ground that our sages identified as flax, the raw material from which linen is made. (10)

In the Torah, flax is synonymous with Egypt. In the second chapter of Genesis the Torah mentions the Pishon River. (11) Rashi, the famed eleventh century biblical commentator, identified this river as the Nile. He offered two suggestions for why the Torah portrays the Nile as Pishon, one of which is on account of the flax, pishtan in Hebrew, that grew in abundance along its shores. To buttress this claim Rashi quoted Isaiah, who described Egypt as a nation of flax growers. (12) By making an offering of flax Cain clearly threw his lot in with Egypt and prayed for their dominance over the Jews.

Never Return

We now understand why the Torah forbids Jews to return to Egypt. So important is this prohibition that G-d saw fit to repeat it three times in the Torah despite its usual economy with words. (13) G-d went to great lengths to liberate the Jews, a nation of believers and ambassadors of monotheism, from the clutches of Egyptian paganism. Once free, G-d never wanted His children to return.

We now also understand the link between Passover and the prohibition against mixing linen and wool.  Wool represents the Pascal Lamb and the sheep of Abel’s offering, which symbolize Jewish freedom and Egyptian defeat. Linen, a derivative of flax, represents Cain’s offering and prayer that Egypt triumph over the forces of righteousness, holiness and faith. G-d prohibited our return to Egypt to ensure that we remain forever separate from them. In the same vein G-d prohibited the mixture of linen and wool. (14)

It is now also clear why idolatrous priests in biblical times wore vestments of linen and wool. This vestment was a statement that holiness is not in ascendance over un-holiness. On the contrary, the two can be fused and sown into a single garment. They are equal in strength and can contend against each other. Either could triumph, depending on the dominant thread in any given garment. (15)

When Egypt was crushed and the Jews set free most nations accepted G-d’s dominance. They trembled before the Jews and acknowledged the superiority of G-dliness over paganism, piety over wickedness and faith over atheism. (16) But Egypt, though it too eventually bowed to G-d, refused to surrender completely. Even in the twelfth century, roughly twenty-five-hundred years after the exodus, Maimonides testified that Egyptian priests continued to hold out hope and to wear this garment.

If Egyptian idol worshippers held out hope for twenty-five-hundred years, Jewish believers can hold out hope for even longer. I don’t know if idol worshiping priests wear the mixed garment today, but I do know that Jews continue to respond to G-d’s call to be a light unto the nations and to be ambassadors for monotheism. Let us each strengthen our faith in G-d and in His promise of liberation. As He liberated our ancestors from Egypt so may He may He liberate us from our troubles and current exile, speedily in our days. Amen! (17)

Footnotes

  1. Leviticus 19:19.
  2. See Maimonides’s conclusion to Hilchot Temurah, where he encourages speculation on the reasons for chukim.
  3. Genesis 4: 3-5.
  4. Pirkei D’reb Eliezer ch. 21 and Midrash Tanchumah Bereshit 9.
  5. Guide to the perplexed v. III ch. 37. See Sefer Hamitzvot negative commandment # 42, where he notes that this practice was prevalent in Egypt in his day. This is also quoted by the Chinuch in his elucidation of this prohibition.
  6. Pirkei D’reb Eliezer ch. 21.
  7. Pirkei D’reb Eliezer ch. Ibid. See also the Ari Hakadosh in Shaar Mamarei Rashbi (Mishpatim) that Moses was a reincarnation of Abel and the Egyptian that Moses slew (Exodus 2: 12) was a reincarnation of Cain. This fits with Pirkei D’rebi Eliezer ch. 21 that Cain worried to G-d about “a righteous man on earth, who will know your great name and, who will kill me.” According to “V’lo Od Ela” by Rabbi Eliyahu Hatamri this is a reference to Moses who slew an Egyptian with an utterance of G-d’s holy name (see Rashi to Exodus 2: 14).
  8. Exodus 5:2. He then brazenly concluded I don’t know G-d and I shall not send away the Jews.
  9. Otiyot D’Rabbi Akiva – Ot Kuf quoted by Rabbi Eliyahu Hatamri in his “V’lo Od Ela” commentary to Pirkei D’reb Eliezar ch. 21.
  10. Pirkei D’reb Eliezer ch. 21 and Midrash Tanchumah: Bereshit 9.
  11. Genesis 2: 12 and see Rashi ibid.
  12. Isaiah 19: 9.
  13. Deuteronomy 17: 16, 28: 68 and Exodus 14:13.See Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah, 4:1 and Mechilta on Exodus 14:13.See also Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot negative commandment #46.
  14. There are two exceptions to this rule. This mixture was permitted in the Priestly vestment in the Holy Temple and when attaching wool Tzitzit to w four cornered linen garment. These garments are worn in the context of such supreme holiness that they don’t give rise to the suggestion that holiness can be co-opted.
  15. Wearing linen by itself, though it represents Egypt, does not represent conflict with holiness and when Egypt is not in conflict, it is a valuable entity. It is a G-dly creation and has its purpose. See Toras Menachem 4744 p. 2522. Another reason for the prohibition, cited by Ramban and Rabbenu Bachya in their commentaries to Leviticus 19:19, is that wool and linen represent the separate realms of animal and plant life. Each has a separate source of vitality in heaven and mixing the two channels of vitality compromises their integrity. Such mixtures were permissible in the Temple (and in Tzitzit) because the Temple (and according to the Kabbalists Tzitzit share this level of holiness) represents the seminal point of creation from which all channels of vitality flow. At this point there is no concern of mixing and compromising for all the channels are merged at this common seminal point. It is only after they emerge and embark on their separate paths that mixing can dilute their strength. This approach also helps to explain why wearing linen by itself is not forbidden.
  16. Exodus 15: 14-16.
  17. This essay is based on the “V’lo Od Ela” commentary by Rabbi Eliyahu Hatamri to Pirkei D’reb Elazar ch. 21.

 

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