The Mixture of Wool and Linen

Why are Jews forbidden to wear garments that contain wool and linen? A typical Jewish response would be, “Why ask why?” And, truthfully, such a response isn’t far off the mark. This prohibition is known as a chok, Hebrew for edict, a law for which G‑d provides no reason and expects us to accept on faith.1 Yet Jews have always enjoyed speculation, and this case is no different.2

Why are Jews forbidden to wear garments that contain wool and linen?

Our sages suggested this might be related to the primordial sacrifices offered by Cain and Abel. The Torah relates that Cain offered produce, and Abel offered sheep. Abel’s sacrifice was offered with love, and was accepted by G‑d; Cain’s offering was brought begrudgingly, and was rejected.3 Since wool grows on sheep, and linen is made from fibers of the flax plant, which grows from the ground, proscribing the mixture of wool and linen reminds us to follow Abel’s example and reject that of Cain.4

By now you are wondering how any of this relates to Passover. But stay with me, and I’ll get right to it. You see, dear reader, Maimonides offered his own perspective on the prohibition of wool-and-linen mixtures. He argued that in biblical times such garments were popular among idolatrous priests, and the Torah seeks to prohibit all idolatrous customs. In fact, Maimonides testified that in the twelfth century, when he lived in Egypt, such garments were popular among idolatrous priests.5

Now, why were wool-and-linen garments considered appropriate for idol worship, and why was this particularly popular in Egypt? Ah, dear reader, this line of questioning draws us directly into Passover.

Cain and Abel

Our sages taught that Cain and Abel offered their sacrifices on the fourteenth of Nissan. Their father, Adam, informed them that on this day the future Jewish people would offer a paschal lamb to thank G‑d for their redemption from Egypt, and he suggested that his sons also offer a sacrifice to G‑d on this day.6

Rather than suggest that they offer a lamb to simulate the offering Jews would make on this day, Adam let his sons choose their own offering. This was his way of probing their characters and identifying the spiritual composition of their souls. If they would offer sheep, it would tell him that they identified with the plight of the Jews and rejoiced over the future exodus. If their offering would resemble or symbolize Egypt, he would know that they identified with the enemies of G‑d.

Adam let his sons choose their own offerings.

As it happened, Abel rejoiced for the Jews, and thus offered a sheep, to resemble the paschal lamb. Cain identified with Egypt, and thus offered produce. Adam understood Cain’s offering as a plea to the Almighty that He change His mind and allow Egypt to triumph. You see, our sages taught that Cain’s soul was the root-soul for all future wicked souls, and Abel’s soul was the root-soul for all future righteous souls. The Midrash specifically describes Cain’s spiritual progeny as those who reject G‑d, claiming to have their own source for water.7

To us, this sounds like a perfect description of the ancient Egyptians. When Moses approached Pharaoh for the first time to deliver G‑d’s demand that the Jews be liberated, Pharaoh replied, “Who is G‑d that I would hearken to His voice?”8 Our sages taught that Egypt felt arrogant and secure on account of the Nile River. With such a plentiful supply of water, they were confident in their ability to overcome every obstacle and survive any threat without assistance from a metaphysical G‑d.9 This is precisely the description of Cain’s spiritual progeny, who don’t need G‑d because they have their own water source.

Cain, who was the spiritual father figure of the Egyptians, could not rejoice over the liberation of the Jews. To him this was a tragedy. Egypt represented the human ability to depend on ingenuity and nature’s resources without the need for supernatural intrusions by G‑d. Jews represented the worldview that humanity is entirely dependent on G‑d, and that without G‑d the human is nothing.

Cain could not rejoice over the liberation of the Jews.

Cain couldn’t permit this worldview to survive, let alone flourish; but if the Jews were to be liberated, that is precisely what would happen. To intercede on behalf of Egypt, Cain offered a product from the ground that our sages identified as flax, the raw material from which linen is made.10

In the Torah, flax is synonymous with Egypt. In the second chapter of Genesis, the Torah mentions the Pishon River.11 Rashi, the famed eleventh-century biblical commentator, identified this river as the Nile. He offered two suggestions for why the Torah portrays the Nile as Pishon, one of which is that it is on account of the flax, pishtan in Hebrew, that grew in abundance along its shores. To buttress this claim Rashi quotes Isaiah, who described Egypt as a nation of flax growers.12 By making an offering of flax, Cain clearly threw his lot in with Egypt, and prayed for their dominance over the Jews.

Never Return

We now understand why the Torah forbids Jews to return to Egypt. So important is this prohibition that G‑d saw fit to repeat it three times in the Torah, despite the Torah’s usual economy with words.13 G‑d went to great lengths to liberate the Jews, a nation of believers in and ambassadors of monotheism, from the clutches of Egyptian paganism. Once they were free, G‑d never wanted His children to return.

Once free, G‑d never wanted His children to return.

We now also understand the link between Passover and the prohibition against mixing linen and wool. Wool represents the paschal lamb and the sheep of Abel’s offering, which symbolize Jewish freedom and Egyptian defeat. Linen, a derivative of flax, represents Cain’s offering and prayer that Egypt triumph over the forces of righteousness, holiness and faith. G‑d prohibited our return to Egypt to ensure that we remain forever separate from them. In the same vein, G‑d prohibited the mixture of linen and wool.14

It is now also clear why idolatrous priests in biblical times wore vestments of linen and wool. This vestment was a statement that holiness is not in ascendance over unholiness; on the contrary, the two can be fused and sown into a single garment. They are equal in strength and can contend against each other. Either could triumph, depending on the dominant thread in any given garment.15

When Egypt was crushed and the Jews set free, most nations accepted G‑d’s dominance. They trembled before the Jews and acknowledged the superiority of G‑dliness over paganism, piety over wickedness and faith over atheism.16 But Egypt, though it too eventually bowed to G‑d, refused to surrender completely. Even in the twelfth century, roughly twenty-five hundred years after the Exodus, Maimonides testified that Egyptian priests continued to hold out hope and to wear this garment.

If Egyptian idol-worshippers held out hope for twenty-five hundred years, Jewish believers can hold out hope for even longer. I don’t know if idol-worshipping priests wear the mixed garment today, but I do know that Jews continue to respond to G‑d’s call to be a light unto the nations and to be ambassadors for monotheism. Let us each strengthen our faith in G‑d and in His promise of liberation. As He liberated our ancestors from Egypt, so may He may He liberate us from our troubles and current exile, speedily in our days. Amen!17