“The ephod was made of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen.” (Ex 39:2)
This week’s parasha, Pikudei, restates a lot of what has come before, again laying out the details of the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. We’ve read this stuff before – first what God told Moses to do, then what Moses told the people, and then the people following the instructions. The eyes glaze over, indeed.
This one verse, however, brings up something a little different. Not that we haven’t seen it before; in Lev 19:19, we are told “You shall not put on a cloth a mixture of shatnez”, but in the Exodus verse, we learn what a shatnez cloth is – linen and wool.
What could possibly be the reason for not wearing an outfit that has both linen and wool in it? And why would it be ok for Aaron the High Priest to do it, but not anyone else?
Explanations for the shatnez law range from “it’s ‘chok’ – a law without reason, just follow it” to Kabbalstic thoughts. Linen and wool are from different sources, plant and animal. Maimonides (aka Rambam, 12th c Spain) reasoned that it was because pagan priests did it, so we shouldn’t. One midrash takes it back to Cain and Abel. Abel brought offerings from his flock (wool) and God liked that for no apparent reason, and Cain brought offerings from his crop (plant); mixing the two would be mixing guilt and innocence, evil and good. Another midrash states that God created species in the world one by one, so mixing two species would be an affront to God’s creation.
Jewish practice does like to make distinctions between things, keeping things separate. Pure and impure. Sacred and ordinary. Shabbat and the rest of the week. Milk and meat. Linen and wool. Most non-Orthodox Jews don’t pay much attention to the laws of shatnez, but as with other seemingly arcane laws and practices, we can pour new wine into old bottles, gleaning new meaning from old rituals.
Jewish law encourages us to live intentionally. We live with many contradictions in our lives, and part of living intentionally is uncovering some of those contradictions to find harmony in our words and deeds. For example, I choose not to eat certain “kosher” meat, because the conditions of the workers in the plant were dangerous and unethical. Some expensive, off-season fruits arrive at in our stores only through great use of resources to import them. Perhaps we can use the law of shatnez to think about the clothing we put on our bodies. Those who follow shatnez pay a lot of attention to the tags sewn into seams. Perhaps we can use those same tags to pay attention to where our clothes are manufactured, under what conditions, and what the real costs of “cheap” clothes are.
Perhaps Aaron’s life as High Priest made any distinction between his actions and beliefs indistinguishable. But for the rest of us, we probably need reminders. Whether or not you wear clothes of wool and linen or eat strawberries in the winter, we can learn from this Torah text to keep paying attention to when our actions and beliefs are in concert.