Parshat Ki Taytzay is chock full of Mitzvot (74 to be exact) including one of the most unusual Mitzvot, namely that of not wearing Shatnez–clothing which contains a blend of wool and linen. Due to it’s unusual nature, the Mitzvah of Shatnez makes it into the classification of Mitzvot which are termed “Chukim–statutes”–laws whose reasons are not really known to us. Though one could argue that we really don’t know the reason for any Mitzvah, Chukim seem to be so inexplicable that try as one might, a person could not come up with a reason for them on his own. Thankfully, greater minds than the average person, namely our Rabbis, have come up with a number of reasons as to why Shatnez is forbidden.
According to Rambam (Maimonides, in his work “The Guide to the Perplexed”) clothing with blends of wool and linen were worn by magicians. As the Torah warned us in last week’s parsha, we must do everything we can to stay far away from magicians and their behavior. According to other opinions, the reason for not wearing wool and linen blends is because the Kohanim (priests) wore such clothing and in order to make a distinction between them and “non-Kohanic” Jews, we do not dress similarly.
Other Rabbis note an incident in the Torah where the blend of wool and linen first became problematic. The first person who symbolized all that grows was Cayin (a.k.a. Cain) the son of Adam, because he was the first-ever farmer and linen comes from a plant. The first person who symbolized the animal kingdom was Hevel (Cayin’s brother) since he was the first shepherd and wool comes from sheep. Thus, the first blend of linen (Cayin) and wool (Hevel) resulted in death–namely Hevel being killed by Cayin. As a result, the Rabbis tell us that there is something inherently dangerous about blending wool and linen together and therefore we should stay away from it.
But there’s got to be more to it than that. After all, what is really so dangerous about linen (besides those hard-to-iron creases!) and wool? According to the Zohar (the main book of Kabbalah) Shatnez can be read as “Satan Oz–the strength of evil.” The Zohar says that wearing a blend of wool and linen will cause a person to do evil. The question is: how?
R. Moshe Cordevero poses an interesting question. He notes that the Torah has existed even before the beginning of time. Those of us who study Torah know that Torah is timeless and thus it is applicable in every generation. So R. Cordevero asks “How could this pasuk in the Torah regarding Shatnez apply to Adam and Chava, given that they didn’t wear clothing?” In response to his own question, R. Cordevero says that Adam and Chava did not have to apply this pasuk to clothing. The message in the pasuk isn’t merely about not blending the plant and animal worlds. Rather, the pasuk is telling us not to blend the physical and spiritual worlds together. Blending means putting two things together in such a way that neither is recognizable anymore. For example, putting a peach and a mango together in a blender results in both of them becoming totally unrecognizable. While we ARE supposed to raise the physical world to a spiritual level (by using physical things to do Mitzvot) we are not allowed to BLEND the two worlds until there is no distinction. The reason for this is because everything in this world has its own, distinct role to play. If that distinction is taken away, things become distorted and then nothing is able to fulfill its role. An example of this is when people try to blend male and female roles by taking away their distinctive characteristics and making each do the other’s job. This results in neither being able to fulfill their proper duty in this world. Thus Adam and Chava were being warned not to do anything to make the physical and spiritual worlds unrecognizable–i.e. lose their distinction. The way they were supposed to do this was by NOT eating of the Tree of Knowledge. The Tree of Knowledge contained the knowledge of how the physical world REALLY IS part of the spiritual world. But if human beings knew that, they would start to blur the distinctions between the two worlds which might lead them to think that they are G-d (just like the snake told Adam and Chava they would be, after they ate from the tree). That kind of knowledge leads to great evil. This is what the Zohar is referring to when it says Shatnez really means “giving power to evil”.
The Rabbis take this one stage further and say that the Torah is also telling the Jewish people that they can not BLEND (i.e. assimilate) with the nations of the world. While they can be “acquainted” or “involved” with the non-Jewish world, they can never really blend the two worlds together by assimilating through marriage, socializing, etc. Assimilation causes a blurring of the distinctive roles of the Jewish nation versus the nations of the world. Such a blurring causes distortion and eventually, great evil. In fact, the idea of not assimilating is the basis for the connection to the next topic, namely that of Tzitzit. Jews wear Tzitzit as a constant reminder to themselves and others that we are a distinct nation who has a special relationship with Hashem and thus we cannot assimilate.
This idea seems to come up again at the end of the parsha, when the Torah commands us to wipe out the nation of Amalek. The question often asked is: What was Amalek’s great crime that unlike any other nation we have to wipe them out completely? Perhaps one idea is that when the Jews left Egypt, the nations of the world were afraid to start a war with them because they saw the Jews as a distinct nation who had a special relationship with Hashem. Amalek came along and tried to destroy that belief by starting a war with the Jews, in the hopes that the other nations would see the Jews as just another nation against whom they could fight and win. Since Amalek promoted a distorted view of who the Jewish people were, as long as Amalek exists the true role of the Jewish people cannot be fulfilled. Therefore, they must be wiped out.
When you think about it, Jews who assimilate today are really continuing the work of Amalek by showing the world that they are not the separate and distinct “chosen” nation of Hashem. Perhaps in the merit of showing Hashem that we really DO want to be the “holy” nation that He meant for us to be, He will help us by giving us back our Temple and allowing us to live in the Land of Israel in peace.