The following article appeared in The Jewish Advocate February 12, 2010 issue
Are your clothes kosher?
Lab tests for mixing of linen and wool
By Elise Kigner Advocate Staff
At the Boston Shatnez Laboratory, a rabbi makes an incision in a black coat and picks out a single thread. He drops it on a slide covered in olive oil and uses blades to separate the fibers. Under the microscope, the fibers look like a mass of tangled hair. The verdict: cotton.
An incision in the collar turns up polyester. When magnified, a thread from the outside fabric looks like square shapes inside circles, a sign of rabbit hair. With no sign of shatnez – both wool and linen in a single garment – the coat is deemed kosher.
The seal of approval: a shatnez-free tag.
The shatnez tester performs a vital service for a relatively small number of Orthodox Jews, ensuring they comply with Deuteronomy 22:11: “You shall not wear combined fibers, wool and linen together.”
Jews who observe this commandment must get their new clothes tested before they can wear them.
Rabbi Zvi Solomon, 32, usually tests clothing weeknights after 10:30 p.m., and he does not typically let people watch. He recalled how flustered a groom became when he walked in as Solomon was working on the seams of the wedding tuxedo (it’s up to the customer to have a tailor repair any tears).
But Solomon agreed to allow a reporter into his lab, which is located in the Brighton house he shares with his wife, Yehudis, and three young children.
After approving the black coat – a rabbi’s gift to his wife – Solomon examined the rabbi’s Ralph Lauren suit, which he planned to wear for Passover.
In the collar, he found synthetic threads. In the shoulder pads, just cotton. To check the pinstripes, he did the tear test. Wool rips when tugged; synthetic thread doesn’t. The thread didn’t budge. He checked the waistband and belt loops, finding all synthetic material. The suit was kosher.
Shatnez testers never trust the labels. Solomon pulled out a hat he often uses as an example; the label said 75 percent wool and 15 percent linen. Under the microscope, the hat turned out to be 100 percent synthetic and so shatnez free.
Solomon, who works full-time as a rabbi at the Kollel of Greater Boston in Brighton, is one of at least two Boston-area shatnez testers.
Rabbi Shimon Miara has tested for shatnez the past 14 years from his Brighton home. A full-time mohel, Miara is also a sofer or Torah scribe.
Solomon said shatnez work requires a certain temperament. “If a person is overly nervous, they can’t do this, because they can’t trust themselves,” he said. “You have to take things seriously, but at the same time make a judgment”
Solomon was certified by the International Association of Professional Shatnez Laboratories after a week of training in New Jersey. When he started three years ago, it took him eight hours to test a suit. Now it takes him 20 minutes – a good thing, considering he says he has 150 regular customers.
His Web site, testshatnez.com, advises what clothing should be tested, such as garments that have inner components concealed by lining; contain wool, cashmere or linen; or look like linen. Parts of clothing found to contain wool or linen typically can be replaced.
The site offers advice on 85 garments. For example, embroidery kits, oven mitts, blouses and baseball gloves should be tested, but not undergarments, wigs, belts and earmuffs.
Solomon recalled seeing a fellow rabbi at the Kollel wearing a new jacket by Hugo Boss, a brand that commonly contains shatnez. Solomon took the coat into the office, looked at the collar, and deemed the coat shatnez. He recommended replacing the collar.
To drum up awareness of shatnez, Solomon plans to distribute brochures to kosher food stores, Hillels, clothing stores, Jewish day schools and bookstores.
On the front of the brochure is a picture of a hamburger. Between the meat and the bun is not cheese, but sweaters, and the words, “What do you mean, it’s not kosher?!”
Torah commentators have offered numerous explanations for the shatnez commandment. One goes back to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. After G-d accepted Abel’s sacrifice of a sheep but rejected his brother’s of flax seeds (which are used to make linen), Cain killed Abel in a fit of jealousy.
Solomon, though, doesn’t require an explanation. For him, that the commandment is in the Torah is reason enough to obey it.
On his Web site, Solomon states: “The mitzvah of shatnez is as important a mitzvah as ‘Do not steal,’ or ‘Love your friend as you love yourself.’”
Asked whether violating shatnez is as serious as stealing, he responded:
“They’re both equal as absolute truths. You have to ask G-d.”
The following article was printed in the Hamodia Magazine –Feb 18 ‘09
The M.I.T. [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] – Shaatnez Connection
Based on an interview with Harav Levi Yitzchak Horowitz The Bostoner Rebbe, Zt”l
The intricacies of the Torah prohibition of shaatnez – wearing garments containing a mixture of wool and linen fibers – is unknown to many, even among Torah-observant Jews. One linen thread alone in a wool garment constitutes shaatnez, and every time one wears that garment, he transgresses a major Torah commandment, similar to eating treif meat.
Today, most of the shaatnez found in clothing is located in the collars of more expensive men’s suits. Usually, a piece of linen canvas is sewn on or glued to the inside of the felt behind the jacket collar; its purpose is to hold the collar’s shape. You cannot see it because it’s hidden behind the felt, but it’s there, rendering the garment forbidden, and it must be removed and replaced with a non-linen fabric.
Some of the popular name brands that have been found to contain shaatnez are Hugo Boss, Canali, Hickey Freeman, Zegna, Pal Zileri, Armani, and Burberry, among many others in a similar price range. In addition, Joseph A. Banks and Banana Republic clothes are often found to contain shaatnez. Fortunately, the shaatnez in these suits is usually located only in the collar and is easy to remove.
Many people mistakenly assume that the fact that a frum person sells the garment means it’s kosher. However, the seller himself doesn’t really know the contents of the garment. The only way one can be assured that the garment is shaatnez-free is to have it checked scientifically by someone using a microscope and different solutions to identify the fibers – a process that must be done or supervised by someone with knowledge and experience.
In the 1940s, observance of the mitzvah of shaatnez was not very widespread in America. Jews were struggling to establish themselves in a new land, and it was a challenge to hold on to mitzvos as basic as Shabbos and kashrus. Hence, this mitzvah, obscure to many as a chok (a mitzvah whose reasoning is beyond human comprehension) and requiring very specialized training and know-how, was left by the wayside.
In 1940, one man in New York, Reb Yosef Rosenberger, z”l, made it his life’s goal to publicize this mitzvah and keep Jews from transgressing it. Possessing knowledge, skills, and technical equipment that few people at the time had, he established a shaatnez lab in New York City, where he checked garments to make sure they were kosher. Through his efforts, he put the mitzvah of shaatnez on the map, so to speak.
In Boston at the time, public awareness was similarly low, but there was no such lab. There was, however, a fledgling Chassidic community with the Bostoner Rebbe at its helm. The Rebbe had arrived in 1942 and soon arranged for garments to be sent to Reb Yosef Rosenberger’s lab in Brooklyn for checking. However, this was time- consuming and difficult, and the Rebbe wished to see a shaatnez lab set up in Boston.
Accomplishing this feat did not prove easy. At the time, there was no one available to train someone in Boston. Several attempts were made to bring in such an instructor, but each one fell through. The Rebbe thought that perhaps if they could acquire some specialized equipment to make garment-checking simpler, they could overcome this hurdle, but the problem of locating such equipment remained an issue.
After some time had passed with no solution in sight, the Rebbe grew distraught. How could a frum community thrive without a local shaatnez lab? How could this vital mitzvah min haTorah be neglected?
One day as the Rebbe sat in his office mulling over this state of affairs, a friend came to see him. He asked what was wrong, and the Rebbe explained the problem that weighed on his mind.
“Why is the Rebbe troubled?” the man asked. “Here on your doorstep in Boston, you have a built-in solution – you have the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a national hub of science and technology. They have a textile division, and they could surely help develop a good method of guaranteeing non-shaatnez fabrics.”
Teaming up with MIT to create a shaatnez lab? The Rebbe was intrigued. With a hopeful heart, he picked up the phone to track down the chief of MIT’s textile division. When the Rebbe heard the name of the professor in question, he grew even more hopeful; Professor Schwartz sounded like a good candidate for the job. Wasting no time, the Rebbe arranged a meeting with the professor.
On the appointed day, the Bostoner Rebbe arrived at the university accompanied by a few local Rabbanim. They were shown to Professor Schwartz’s office, where they sat down with him and explained the problem. In order to adhere to the Torah’s prohibition against mixing wool and linen, they needed to develop a reliable method by which to identify the fibers in garments. The professor listened with interest. When the Rebbe finished talking, he smiled broadly.
“Rebbe, you’ve come to the right person. Just recently, workers sued the U.S. Woolen Mills for one million dollars because they claimed the fibers they were working with had entered their lungs and caused health problems. We were hired to work on that case, and in the process we developed a polarized microscope that identifies fibers by color. In examining fabric through the microscope, the color of linen fibers appears different from the color of cotton, and so forth. This sounds like something that could help you.”
The Rebbe was overjoyed to hear of this development. The method would be ideal for checking garments for shaatnez – and it actually turned out to be more accurate than the one being used in New York. On the spot, the Rebbe asked to purchase a microscope. Professor Schwartz responded that while they only had two in their possession, they would be willing to sell one to the Rebbe. The price he quoted was exorbitant, but the Rebbe felt that it was worth it.
The Rebbe and those accompanying him were thrilled. Amazingly, MIT was to be a conduit for the proper observance of the mitzvah of shaatnez in Boston.
After the deal was made, Professor Schwartz invited the Rebbe and the other Rabbanim into his lab to show them the equipment he used to identify fibers in fabric. During the tour, the Rebbe inquired, “Professor Schwartz, in your involvement with garments and fibers, have you found any physical or medical problems that present themselves when wool and linen are mixed, such as allergies or a rash?”
The professor thought for a moment. “Well, Rebbe, as of today, there is nothing to suggest that the combination of wool and flax in harmful to the human body. However, there are many things I know today that I did not know yesterday. And if your Bible tells you it is to be avoided, I would go by it, as it has been proven right so many times.”
When the professor said “your Bible”, he indicated that he was not Jewish, but his words nevertheless fascinated and inspired the Rebbe. On many occasions from then on, he quoted those words in discussions with college students and scientists who doubted the validity of Torah.
“As of today,” the Rebbe became fond of saying, quoting Schwartz’s logic, “there may not be scientific proof for shaatnez or for some other things in the Torah, but scientific information changes, studies change, our understanding changes and develops. And there are many things I know today that I didn’t know yesterday.”
Thus, in addition to supplying the Boston Jewish community with a way to keep the mitzvah of shaatnez, Professor Schwartz proved to be a defender of the Torah. In this area, as in so many others, we can never use our own human logic against Torah. Our reasoning is limited, and it’s only for today; tomorrow it may change. The holy Torah, however, is infinite and timeless, and its mitzvos and wisdom are for now and forever.