What is the strange restriction against wearing wool and linen about and why did it not apply to the priests in the Holy Temple? What important lesson does it teach us?

This week’s Torah portion is “Tetzaveh” (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10), and in it we read all about the special garments that the priests and the High Priest would wear while serving in the Temple.

The priests had a four-garment uniform while the High Priest’s had eight garments. The Torah tells us that these garments were for “honor and glory,” as they were serving in the King’s ‘palace’ and therefore only the best would do.

There are two oddities about the priests’ garments. The first is that although it is generally forbidden by the Torah to wear a garment that contains both wool and linen (one or the other is fine), a prohibition known as “shatnez,” the Priests’ clothing was made up of both wool and linen. The second issue is the emphasis on perfection and beauty.

It is always commendable to use beautiful items in the service of God. A beautiful shofar, a shiny Etrog, a fancy Shabbat wine goblet – they are all meritorious. But the bottom line is that any object should do as long as it meets the basic requirements. However, if a Priest’s garment has so much as a slight tear or dirt, he is deserving of death! It cannot be worn. Only the very best would do.

How can this be?

It is explained that Shatnez is a decree that defies logic and there is no given reason for observing it. Nevertheless, we are told that it represents and recalls the fight between Cain and Abel. Cain brought an offering of the ground, from his flax (which is “linen”), and Cain brought an offering of wool from his sheep. Cain’s offering was rejected because it was of low quality and was not given wholeheartedly. Abel’s was accepted because it was both of high quality and given with sincerity. Cain became jealous and killed his brother. Hence, it can be said that it was a mixture of wool and linen that brought about the first murder in history. Therefore, we may not wear a garment made of wool and linen.

Cain’s mistake was that he did not consider a high-quality offering important. He felt that an offering is an offering, he would do what Ihe absolutely had to do, and that was it. He was a “bare minimum” type of guy. Abel was the reverse.

God wants the clothing and service in the Holy Temple to be of the “Abel” variety – perfect in every way.

In order to recall the Cain and Abel fiasco, we may not wear a mixture of wool and linen. However, this prohibition did not apply to the priests because their job represented the ideal of bringing peace in the world. As such, there was no concern that they would fall prey to a Cain and Abel type of fiasco.

Although Jewish law does not require us to use the best materials and objects in the service of God, we should certainly make an effort to do so according to the best of our ability.

By: Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below: