The prohibition of shatnez applies only to wool and linen, and only if the cloth contains both * In the past, most clothing was made of wool and linen; later, cotton was used, and in recent generations, synthetic materials are most popular * Today, the rate of wool and linen used in the entire clothing industry has declined to only one percent * When buying clothing, if the label says is not made of wool and linen, the chance of shatnez is extremely low * In luxury suits and coats the chance of shatnez is low, but still requires inspection * Clothing sellers are still responsible for checking the clothes sold in their store
Q: Someone who buys clothes from a seller unfamiliar with the prohibition of shatnez, must he check the clothes for shatnez, or perhaps the obligation to check for shatnez is only in clothes made of wool or linen?
The Torah commanded not to wear a garment made of tzemer (wool) and pishtan (linen), as it is written: “Keep My decrees…do not wear a garment that contains shatnez [a forbidden mixture of wool and linen fabrics] (Leviticus 19:19). Wool is what grows on the species called keves (sheep), whose males are called aylim (rams), and females’ rechalim (lambs). However, what grows on other animals is not included in the prohibition, because it is not just called ‘wool’, but carries a by-name, such as “camel wool” or “rabbit wool.” In practice, from ancient times until today, most of the wool produced in the world came from sheep, because they naturally grow a lot of fine wool, and are easy to raise.
Linen (made from flax) is a long, single stem plant, within which there are fibers from which strong threads can be made, and with special processing, delicate threads can be intertwined for weaving fine white clothing. In the past, the most common clothing was made from wool or linen, so much so, some Sages held the opinion that when the Torah says “beged” (garment) without elaborating, its intention is that of a garment made of wool or linen (Menachot 39b).
The prohibition is to wear a garment that has wool and linen together, such as a woolen garment sewn with linen thread, or even only if its label is made of linen. However, there is no prohibition to wear two different pieces of clothing at once, one made of wool and the other linen, thus one is permitted to wear wool trousers and a linen shirt. It is also permissible to wear a woolen robe and fasten it with a linen belt, for as long as there is no bond of sewing, or a permanent joining between the woolen garment and the linen one, there is no prohibition. A combination of other threads made from various plants, such as hemp and cotton, is permitted. From Divrei Chachamim (rabbinic ordinance), it is also forbidden to sit on cloth that contains shatnez, lest a loose thread touch one’s bare body even slightly, or lest one mistakenly wraps himself with it. In order to prevent such mistakes, our Sages additionally decreed the prohibition of sitting or lying down on a couch-cover containing shatnez, even if there were ten “kosher” fabrics upon it (Beitza 14b; S.A., Y.D. 301:1).
The Nature of Wool and Linen Clothing
The special quality of wool clothing is that it insulates, maintaining body warmth in the winter. In addition, it tends to be more stain resistant, non-absorbent, and since it also retains heat, coats are usually made from it. Wool is also easily dyed, and retains the color as part of the thread. It is resilient, and thus if wrinkled, easily returns to its natural shape. For these reasons, woolen clothes preserve their relatively new look for a long time.
Linen fabrics were considered comfortable and high-quality fabrics because linen threads are strong, and when delicate threads are intertwined from them, very fine white clothing can be weaved from them. In addition, the lack of uniformity in the thickness of the linen thread, caused by its natural growth, gives linen clothing a beautiful and interesting look, to the point where our Sages said that it was a mitzvah for men in the Land of Israel to make their wives happy on holiday’s with the gift of ironed, linen garments, which they especially fancied (Pesachim 109a). A characteristic of linen fabric is that it is lightweight and does not insulate, and thus, suitable for the production of breezy, summer clothes. Their shortcomings are that they wrinkle easily, absorb stains, and are relatively difficult to clean. As a result, when a substitute for linen was found, its status greatly declined.
The Upsurge of Cotton
The substitute found for linen was cotton, which became widespread several centuries ago. Although clothing made from cotton is slightly warmer than linen, nevertheless it was preferable because cotton is easier to grow and produce thread from it, and because cotton clothes wrinkle less, and are easier to wash. Consequently, today, 80 times more cotton is produced in the world than linen, with the majority of linen being manufactured for the production of strong threads and other non-clothing purposes.
Since thick cotton clothing can be made for winter, by and large cotton has also replaced wool. The amount of cotton produced in the world today is twenty-five times that of wool. Additionally, there are also other threads produced from types of plants and animals, which also contribute to a certain reduction in the percentage of wool and linen used in the clothing industry.
Still, when manufacturers wanted to sew woolen fabrics with strong thread, they would sew it with strong linen threads. Therefore, wool suits and coats had to be checked for shatnez, as well as sofas and armchairs covered with woolen fabrics.
The Rise of Synthetic Threads
About three generations ago, the way was found to produce from by-products of crude-oil, synthetic goods such as plastic and nylon, and artificial threads from polyester and acrylic from which fabrics could be produced. Initially, synthetic clothing was impermeable and provided poor insulation, and those wearing them suffered from sweat and cold, and their main selling-point was they were inexpensive in comparison to regular clothing. However, as they improved, they became more breathable and provided better insulation, and seeing as they were also cheaper and easier to clean and iron, they became extremely popular. In recent years their improvement continued, to the point where more than 70 percent of all thread produced in the world is synthetic. That was the case in the year 2017, whereas ten years before that, they were 60 percent of all thread produced. In practice, the rate of clothes made from wool and linen in the entire clothing industry declined to just one percent, and their share is likely to continue to decline.
The Use of Wool and Linen Today
In practice, luxury linen shirts and suits are rarely found today. Linen threads and fabric are more frequently used due to their strength, as they are good for tying objects and weaving thick fabrics, and sometimes linen fabrics are used to bolster different parts of coats and suits, for example, bolstering the collar of a suit and strengthening places where buttons and loops are sewn. However, the use of linen threads is on the decline, as many manufacturers prefer to use synthetic threads which are stronger, cheaper, and easier to use.
For the reasons mentioned, wool clothing has also declined, but because of its warming and non-absorbent properties – people who prefer natural, breathable material, prefer wool sweaters, and because of wool’s luxury look, many prefer wool suits and coats.
The Practical Halakha
In the vast majority of clothing today there is no concern of shatnez because they are made of synthetic or cotton material. Therefore, whenever it is written on the label of a garment that it is mainly made of synthetic, cotton, or other non-woolen or linen materials, one should not be concerned they contain shatnez. Although in rare cases garments may have a wool or linen embroidery, or was sewed with linen thread, nevertheless, there will still be no mixture of wool and linen together. Only in very rare cases can one find both a linen thread and a wool decoration attached to a garment. However, since it is a very distant concern of less than one thousandth of a percent, it is enough to read the label on the garment, and if it is not written that it is made of wool or linen – one should not be concerned it contains shatnez.
In woolen or linen clothes, too, it is enough for the buyer to look at the clothing label. If it is written that the garment is made of wool or linen with other materials without a blend of wool and linen, it does not need to be checked. True, sometimes labels are inaccurate – or because a wool or linen garment made of less than a percentage or two does not need to be listed, or because in rare occasions, a garment can be mislabeled. However in practice, as long as it is not written on the label that there is both wool and linen in the garment, the likelihood that it contains shatnez is a fraction of a percent, much less than miut ha’matzuey (10%), therefore, one need not be concerned about it.
The Concern about Expensive Wool Suits
Nowadays, the concern for shatnez can be found in expensive, high-quality wool suits and coats, which once in a while are sewn by hand with linen thread. Sometimes the collar and button-downs are reinforced with strong linen fabrics, and sometimes linen fabric is placed in the shoulders and front lining. Therefore, someone who buys a very expensive wool suit or coat, since linen is used in more than 10% of them, one is obligated to check them for shatnez.
It is also appropriate for someone who buys a linen suit to check it, since there is somewhat of a concern that wool was placed in its collar.
Shatnez Testing Labs
In a shatnez test laboratory, a microscope is used to see the fibers from which the thread is made. Since each thread has its own shape, those familiar with the shapes of the threads can distinguish wool from linen, and amongst other types of threads. In general, the policy of examiners in the laboratories tends to take into consideration the methods of individual poskim (Jewish law arbiters) who are machmir (rule stringently), both in the laws of shatnez, and in the requirement of examination.
The Responsibility of Merchants
Everything we’ve learned so far concerns shoppers, but clothing store owners must be more machmir. Both because it is easier for them to check the manufacturers and suppliers and bring a sample to be examined, and also because their responsibilities are greater since they sell to the public. Therefore, whenever they receive wool or linen clothing that according to their familiarity may contain shatnez, even though it is less than miut ha’matzuey, they should give a sample of the clothing to be tested, and if the sample shows no signs of shatnez, they do not need to check other clothing from the same series. In cases where according to their experience there is no concern, they need not be examined. On the other hand, when there is great concern, such as in expensive suits and coats, all of them must be checked.
Likewise, buyers should prefer purchasing woolen or linen clothing from God-fearing shop owners, who are careful not to cause shoppers’ to transgress the prohibition of shatnez. However, if they bought clothing in a regular store, they are obligated to check only very expensive woolen suits and coats, and linen suits.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.