Thursday, September 8, 2011


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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One day during this past summer our family visited Quiet Valley Historical Farm in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. It is a historic farm preserved exactly as it was in the early 1800s after a German Lutheran family settled it in the late 1700s.

The tour was especially meaningful because so many concepts mentioned in the Talmud relating to agriculture and production of textiles came to life. Many of the 39 forbidden categories of labor on Shabbos are directly related to primitive methods of farming and making clothes. It is generally difficult to visualize those concepts in our world of modern technology when most people no longer live on farms. But as I listened to the guides discuss and demonstrate their way of life I saw the words of the Talmud come to life1.

In one home the guide described the process of making clothes. She described how after they sheared the sheep, they dyed, combed, and spun the wool. She also described the process of making linen from the flax plant. The seeds are removed (rippling), the outer stalk is retted to get to the strong inner fibers. It is then crushed (scotching), and the fibers straightened by pulling them through a metal comb (hackles).

She then demonstrated how the wool and linen was mounted onto the loom, one as the woof, the other as the warp. At that point I asked why they preferred to use a mixture of wool and linen (called linsey woolseys). She replied that the linen provided greater strength while the wool provided greater warmth. Then she quipped, “Now I know some of you don’t mix plant and animal. But we German Lutherans do!”

It took me a moment to realize that she was referring to the Biblical prohibition of wearing sha’atnez: “You shall not wear combined fibers, wool and linen together.2” I was intrigued by the fact that she referred to the prohibition as being a mixture of plant (linen, a derivative of the flax plant) and animal (wool, which comes from sheep). I had never thought of sha’atnez in that manner and I wondered if any of the commentaries explained it as such.

I found it indeed explained in that vein by Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch. He explains that within man’s makeup there is an ‘element’ of plant and an ‘element’ of animal. A plant is a source of nutrition which contains within itself the ability to reproduce. An animal has the added ability of perception and mobility. An animal utilizes its unique capabilities of perception and mobility in its quest to gratify its vegetative desires of nutrition (food) and reproduction.

Man however, must subordinate his plant-like needs to his animalistic abilities. In other words, he must use his superior perception and mobility to control his base desires through his ability to understand, distinguish, and conceptualize. Rabbi Hirsch explains that man is a pyramid containing certain components of plants and animals. His goal is to elevate those components so he can stand upright before G-d. His plant-like abilities subordinate themselves to his animalistic capabilities, which he in turn subjugates to the fulfillment of his responsibilities as superior man.

The prohibition of sha’atnez symbolically reflects this idea. Wool represents the animalistic element within a human, while linen represents the vegetative element in man. In man, the animalistic abilities of mind and will power, must not be inclined toward the vegetative urges for reproduction and food (nutrition). Rather, these two components must be separated so that it is not used “downwards towards vegetative sensuality, (but) upwards towards the pinnacle of Mankind.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner zt’l offered a beautiful explanation for the universal custom that a groom gives his a bride a diamond ring. At the time of Creation, mankind was charged with the maintenance and furtherance of the world. “Let us make man in our image… they shall rule over the fish in the sea, the birds of the sky, and over the animal, the whole earth, and every creepy thing that creeps on the earth.3” When G-d initially created the world, “He saw that it was good4”. But after He created Man, “G-d saw all that He had made, and it was very good5.”

There are four levels of life in the world: inanimate, plant, animal, man. Plant and animal serve Man by providing him with food and clothing. How do minerals and the inanimate serve Man? One way is that man wears precious stones and diamonds as ornamental jewelry. The beauty of the human countenance is enhanced by the evocative quality that gems and diamonds provide.

When man dons inanimate objects as jewelry it is the greatest demonstration of man’s ability and responsibility to elevate all of creation. It symbolizes that the highest level of being in this world elevates even the basest level of being in this world.

At a wedding the second of the seven special blessings recited is “Blessed are You… the fashioner of the Man.” When a man and woman bond in marriage they are embarking on a journey to produce the next generation of mankind. Therefore, at the moment when they agree to commit themselves to that process, he gives her a diamond to symbolize that through their marriage they have the ability – and responsibility - to elevate all of creation6.

Twice a year – on Tisha B’av and Yom Kippur – it is forbidden for a Jew to wear shoes made from leather. What is the reason behind this prohibition?

The Divrei Shaul7 explained that man wears leather constructed from the hides of animals as a symbol of his dominance over animals. With every step he takes he asserts his superiority and dominance over all of creation.

However, during two days we are removed from that symbolic dominance. On Tisha B’av when the Bais Hamikdash was destroyed, and we were shamefully banished into exile, we lost our superiority over creation. Thus we remove our shoes to symbolize that loss of greatness and status. On Tisha B’av we forfeit our elevated status.

On Yom Kippur we seek to temporarily divorce ourselves from our physical selves so that we can spend the day focusing in spiritual meditation. On Yom Kippur we remove our shoes to symbolize that on this day our focus is not on dominating this world but on living an other-worldly life, divorced from our animalistic urges and drives.

In a sense on Tisha B’av our shoes were removed from us; on Yom Kippur we remove our shoes willingly8.

A Jew is charged with elevating, not only the plant and animal components within himself, but also to elevate all of creation. He does so by adhering to the laws of the Torah and mitzvos. Through his deeds and actions the whole world merits blessing and prosperity.

May we indeed be the conduits to merit such blessing and goodness.

“You shall not wear combined fibers, wool and linen together”

“Let us make man… they shall rule the whole earth”

1 When I mentioned this to one of the guides, she retorted, “You know, you’re the fourth person today to tell me that!”
2 Devorim 22:11; also in Vayikra 19:19 “And a garment that is a mixture of combined fibers shall not come upon you.”
3 Bereishis 1:24
4 Ibid 1:4
5 Ibid 1:31
6 Note: he cannot give her a diamond ring under the chuppah because at that point she is agreeing to a halachic acquisition through her acceptance of the ring. She must therefore know about how much the ring is worth, otherwise she can claim that she only agreed to the marriage on the assumption that the ring was worth much more. To avoid this problem, under the chuppah she is given a ring which she has a relative idea of how much its worth. At the engagement however (or sometime thereafter), the custom us to give her a diamond because of its symbolism.
7 Derush l’Shabbos Shuva 5631
8 The Divrei Shaul utilizes this idea to explain why chalitzah is performed with the removal of the Yavam’s shoe.


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