There is a prohibition in the Torah called sha’atnez against wearing wool and linen together in a garment (Leviticus 19:19, Deuteronomy 22:11).
Maimonides taught that the reason for the mitzvah was to avoid the practice of pagans to mix them. This is an important social and cultural reminder that we come to identify with others who we dress similar to. The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 62) and the Ramban (commentary on Leviticus 19:19) teach that the reason is that wearing these two combined implies that G-d’s world was not created perfect. Kabbalists teach that everything has its own spiritual force and we must learn what should be mixed and what should not to ensure their unique tasks are fulfilled in this world. Some have considered a spiritual approach to the mitzvah, such as my teacher Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo:
The fact is that the original combination of letters in the verse describing the mitzvah of sha’atnez in the Torah before the Fall was not the one we find in our Torah, that is שעטנז צמר ופשתים (“mixture of wool and linen”). Although the verse there contained the same consonants as it does in our version, there were put in another combination, צז מצר יתפשיםשטן (“insolent Satan afflicts and they ensnare”).
In this form the commandment was a warning to Adam not to exchange his original garment of light for the garment of serpent’s skin, representing the evil named Satan az (insolent Satan). Further, the words embody a warning to the effect that these powers would assuredly bring fear and affliction, מצר (metzar) upon man and that they would attempt to ensnare him…and thereby bring him down to Gehenna.
What brought the change in the combination of letters so that we now read Sha'atnez Tzemer u'Fishtim? When Adam put on the “skin of the serpent” his nature became material, necessitating a Torah that gave material commandments. This called for a new reading of the letters to convey the meaning of the commandments. Similarly, all the other commandments adapted themselves to the corporeal and material nature of man (Between Silence and Speech, 136).
A different Midrash (Midrash Tanhuma Bereishit 9:9) teaches that the reason for this mitzvah comes from the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). Abel’s offering to G-d was from sheep (wool) and Cain’s was from flax (linen). Since this episode ended in death, it was decreed that never again should these substances been interconnected upon our skin. Some have suggested this message is also hinted at by the fact that the mitzvah is juxtaposed with the mitzvah to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18-19). This mitzvah is yet another holy attempt to cultivate the moral impulse in humans and to further a more safe and just society.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook teaches that shatnez is an animal welfare mitzvah.
The legal iniquity in the ownership of property is registered in the prohibition of wearing a mixed garment of wool and linen. We are inhibited from the free mixing of wool, which was taken by robbery from the innocent sheep, with flax, which was acquired by equitable, pleasant and cultured labor. The animal will yet rise in cultural status through the control of a higher moral sense, so that its readiness for idealistic participation with man will not be strange or far away (Fragments of Light).
Rav Kook, remarkably, taught here that animals will come to have a very elevated status to the extent that taking their wool is robbing from them.
The mitzvah of shatnez should not be dismissed as a non-understood practice done simply out of pure obedience. Rather, the mitzvah should elevate our consciousness to workers (how are our clothes being produced), to animals (how are animals being industrially treated), and to the land (how is the textile industry affecting the environment).
Field workers don’t have it easy as they battle the winds, sands, heat, and insects, all for meager earnings.
For more than 200 years the U.S., partly for climatic reasons, has been the global leader in the cotton industry. It was also an industry built on the back of American black slaves (dominating the industry by using free labor). By the outbreak of the Civil War, the American South was producing over one billion pounds of cotton per year, roughly two-thirds of the total world production. Slave plantations were producing the world’s cotton. Today America continues to dominate by using subsidies (a highly criticized practice around the world) to make competition near impossible.
For more than a century, America dominated textile production as well, in factories that had become increasingly hazardous and with low pay and long hours (immortalized by the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911 that killed 146 workers). In an effort to improve conditions, the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) was founded in 1900, and was composed primarily of immigrant Jewish workers from four major American cities. Its most famous long-time President, David Dubinsky, presided over the doubling of union membership from 1932 until 1966, including efforts to unionize plants that sprang up in the South and other areas when textile companies tried to avoid union shops.
Textile companies had also gone south to avoid safer working regulations, and the result endangered workers' health. Byssinosis (known as brown lung disease) was a constant problem in the cotton textile industry, as the dust from the cotton would give workers asthma-like symptoms, and over years the symptoms would become irreversible and disabling. According to 1978 government statistics, 35,000 had become disabled, and more than 100,000 were at risk for byssinosis.
It was in this environment that Crystal Lee Sutton, the inspiration for the film "Norma Rae," worked at a J.P. Stevens textile plant in North Carolina. She tried to form a union with an outside organizer, Eli Zivkovich. Management attempted to counter these efforts by printing a flyer addressed to white workers, indicating that if they created a union, black workers would run it. When Sutton copied the flyer, she was fired, and in an episode recreated in the movie, held up a sign that said "UNION" just before being taken away by the police. However, the workers chose to unionize in 1974, eventually joining an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
At first, the United States believed that the textile industry needed support to grow, and a series of tariffs in the early 19th century coincided with a tremendous expansion of the industry. However, in the second half of the 20th century, America has moved increasingly toward free trade (but, as we shall see later, not for cotton itself), with Republican and Democratic Presidents in consensus. Republican President Ronald Reagan was a staunch supporter of free trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994, signed by President Bill Clinton, was intended to remove trade restrictions between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. During its implementation, the primary American beneficiaries have been large agribusiness corporations, particularly corn producers, who also continued to enjoy government subsidies as NAFTA was rolled out through 2008. Oddly, while American manufacturing jobs continued to diminish, the primary beneficiary of these jobs was China, not Mexico. President Clinton helped accelerate this trend by extending "most favored nation" status to China (and membership in the World Trade Organization).
This further eroded membership in the ILGWU, which had been declining for decades. The ILGWU had 450,000 members in 1957, and remained fairly stable until the 1970s, when membership plummeted to almost 377,000 members in 1975, 322,000 members in 1980, fewer than 200,000 by 1986, and 130,000 members in 1992. Even after the ILGWU merged with another union to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) in 1995, it had 250,000 members, and the 21st century has continued to see a decline.
As history shows, it’s not only a tough industry for laborers but also for owners and for nations protecting their home industries. Business professor and strategist Michael Porter wrote:
Advantages [are] often exceedingly fleeting [in these industries],.... Those industries in which labor costs or natural resources are important to competitive advantage also often have ... only low average returns on investment. Since such industries are accessible to many nations ... because of relatively low barriers to entry, they are prone to too many competitors…. Rapidly shifting factor advantage continually attracts new entrants who bid down profits and hold down wages. Developing nations are frequently trapped in such industries.... Nations in this situation will face a continual threat of losing competitive position.
While China dominates the global textile industry today (with laborers toiling under brutal conditions), the U.S. still dominates the global cotton market. Pietra Rivoli in “The Travels of a T-Shirt” explains:
Many argue that the conditions of the working class in Asian apparel factories are comparable to, or worse than, those found centuries ago in Europe and America. The dark Satanic mills have moved but not shut down. How, the protestors charge, can the conditions so deplorable a hundred or more years ago in the West now be acceptable in the East? (Rivoli, 101).
While President Wilson signed the first Federal Labor Law into place to restrict child labor in 1916 and Congress passed a national minimum wage law in 1938, the Far East has not yet caught up. The initial hope that free trade would bring civil and political freedom has been disproven. The debates on how to handle these global tensions have not progressed. Rivoli explains:
Today’s globalization activists identify the multinationals' pursuit of profit and free trade as the enemy of the poor and powerless, a greedy force to be stopped and never trusted. The business community, in turn, scornfully dismisses the activists as a lunatic fringe, a ragtag bunch of ill-informed obstructionists, blocking the only path available out of poverty. The battle has been put in these terms–greedy inhumanity versus naïve and reckless troublemakers–since the first textile factories emerged (Rivoli, 101).
Some have noted how intertwined national relations is with the global economy. Former Secretary of State Cordell Hull said:
I saw that you could not separate the idea of commerce from the idea of war and peace. You could not have serious war anywhere in the world and expect commerce to go on as before.... and [I saw that] wars were often caused by economic rivalry I thereupon came to believe that ... if we could increase commercial exchanges among nations over lowered trade and tariff barriers and remove international obstacles to trade, we would go a long way toward eliminating war itself.
While some protection laws help the poor (minimum wage), others (subsidies) do not.
Remarkably, U.S. government subsidies under the cotton program—approximately $4 billion in 2000—exceed the entire GNP of a number of the world's poorest cotton-producing countries, as well as the United States' entire USAID budget for the continent of Africa. American agricultural subsidies—much like American military might—are simply a force too big for small countries to reckon with. The primary effect of U.S. government subsidies is to increase the supply of cotton grown in the United States and therefore to decrease the world market price of cotton. Declines in world cotton prices, in turn lower the income of farmers outside of the United States…In rough figures, then, if the international price of cotton is 50 cents per pound, West African farmers will receive 25 cents while American farmers receive 72 cents per pound (Rivoli, 51, 55).
Developing countries are suffering in their attempts to compete. The U.S. apparel and textile industries are kept alive only by unnatural acts of life support.
Meanwhile, the American ethos has allowed for enormous waste.
Where rich Americans see garbage, much of the rest of the world sees perfectly fine clothing that can be worn to work or even to weddings, and can clothe another child or two….The average American throws away about 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per year, and while a few communities have textile recycling programs, about 85 percent of this waste goes to landfills today, where it occupies about 4 percent of landfill space (Rivoli, 183, 206).
Shatnez is a mitzvah, which at first glance, is outdated and without reason. However, today, we can rejuvenate the mitzvah as a clothes-consciousness enterprise. There is so much to consider such as limiting waste, reforming trade policies, preserving the environment, helping the worker, the animal, etc. When we put on our clothes, we should know where they are coming from. The prohibition of shatnez is pushing us in the right direction.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”