SHATNES.

Today’s NY Times has one of the most charming articles I’ve read in a while, “If You Build a Restaurant, He Will Not Come,” by Howard Kaplan. (I’ve actually gone to the trouble of getting a weblog-safe link, so that people reading this blog in ages yet to come, changing their genes on a daily basis and flying through interstellar space in personalized quantum bubbles, can still read this article without paying a fee.) It begins with the accidental discovery that Ira Glustein had never eaten in a restaurant, and goes on to a funny and touching family history that I have no intention of spoiling for you. What I want to tell you about is Mr. Glustein’s profession: he is a shatnes tester.

In Jewish law, it is forbidden to wear a garment containing wool and linen. In Hebrew, this unholy blend is called shatnes.
In Mr. Glustein’s words: “My vocation is shatnes — removing linen from wool clothing or wool from linen clothing. The majority of the shatnes that we find today is in men’s expensive suits, usually in the collar. It’s easy to remove by an expert, and it’s just a small tailoring job to repair. It doesn’t change the beauty or quality of the suit.”
Mr. Glustein said many Jews, devout ones included, have never heard of shatnes, even though it is mentioned in two places in the Torah and is no less binding than the dietary laws. A shatnes garment is equivalent to tref, or food unfit for a kosher table.

I’ve delved fairly deeply into Judaica at various points of my life, and I had never heard the word shatnes (more accurately shatnez, and yet more accurately sha’atnez), so I thought I’d tell you about it. (I did know about the prohibition of mixing fibers, but I didn’t know the word, and we’re all about the words here at Languagehat.)


So go, read the article already! Do I have to tell you everything? Go in good health, but go!

Comments

  1. I had the faint hope that a Shatner might be the term for one who tests for shatnez. No, but there did turn out to be a connection between Captain Kirk, etymology, and garments: see the Schattner website.

  2. A friend of mine was doing doctoral research on Yiddish in one of the Ultra-Orthodox communities in Jerusalem. She went to all kinds of religious lectures and extracted amazing examples. One mayse went something like this: “so you know, they sent a spaceship to outer space, and it exploded. They investigated the reasons and guess what they found? The seats in that spaceship were all shatnez”. Sorry, I don’t retain the Yiddish :)
    BTW my email server collapsed. No dinner indeed.

  3. A wonderful article, really. The singer in my band is Orthodox Jewish, and one of his Yeshiva age kids is learning shatnes testing. It’s a pity you never heard the word – it opens up a whole new world of Jewish humor.
    I’ll have to dig up the reference, but I believe it is one of the older loan words in Hebrew, from ancient Egyptian, in fact. Reb Berger could probably weigh in on this.

  4. I hope he does. And Renee, I’m very sorry to hear about your server!

  5. I tried to comment last night, and I thought I did, but apparently not. “Shatnes” for one reason or other became a big deal in the Orthodox community in the early ’70s in LA. I ripped down a whole bunch of “You’re going to Hell” because you mix flax and wool signs down — I rip down those kinds of signs whenever I come across them no matter the religion or denomination — and I probably have some of those signs packed away somewhere.
    I think “sha’atnez” is overdoing it. By a long shot.
    Arne

  6. Isn’t it a problem that they took a picture of his tuna sandwich?

  7. The always-indispensable talmid-khokhem (Torah scholar) Jacob Milgrom, in his Anchor Bible commentary to Leviticus 17-22, has the following to say on the etymology of sa’atnez. (In his notation, the s has a hat on it, the t has a dot beneath it, and the e has a macron. If I could write in Hebrew it’d be easier! Also, I’m not giving full bibiliographic references. I’m not sure I fully understand his terminology [lexical gloss? what other kind is there?] either.)
    The etymology of this untranslatable word is a subject of speculation. Albright [. . .] suggests that it is of Egyptian origin: *s’d-ng
    Also worth mentioning (says me, not Millgrom) is the rabbinic (folk? aggadic?) etymology given in Mishnah Killayim, according to which the word is made up of three words of two letters each, meaning, in sum, something woven, tied, and re-woven (or something like that; I’ve forgotten the exact gloss).

  8. [The paragraph didn't come out. I'll try again:]
    The always-indispensable talmid-khokhem (Torah scholar) Jacob Milgrom, in his Anchor Bible commentary to Leviticus 17-22, has the following to say on the etymology of sa’atnez. (In his notation, the s has a hat on it, the t has a dot beneath it, and the e has a macron. If I could write in Hebrew it’d be easier! Also, I’m not giving full bibiliographic references. I’m not sure I fully understand his terminology [lexical gloss? what other kind is there?] either.)
    “The etymology of this untranslatable word is a subject of speculation. Albright [. . .] suggests that it is of Egyptian origin: *s’d-ng s’d ‘cut’ + ng ‘thread’. The LXX renders kibdelos ‘woven falsely.’ Gorg justifies the LXX on the basis of an Egyptian etymology: either sht ‘weave’ + n’dz false or s’dz ‘falsify volume/weight’ + N3′fabric’ (Coptic). It is probably a lexical gloss (Elliger, Fishbane) clarifying the meaning of ‘fabric of two kinds of yarn,’ and is itself still in need of explication: “combining wool and linen (Deut 22:11). Most likely, the term sa’atnez, well known in the time of H, fell into desuetude by the time of D, and therefore had to be explained.”
    Also worth mentioning (says me, not Millgrom) is the rabbinic (folk? aggadic?) etymology given in Mishnah Killayim, according to which the word is made up of three words of two letters each, meaning, in sum, something woven, tied, and re-woven (or something like that; I’ve forgotten the exact gloss).

  9. Thanks, very interesting information. As for the rabbinic etymology, would it have anything to do with this note from my “sha’atnez” link above?
    (2) How can one word be used for two different Derashos? The answer is that the Halachah of “Shu’a, Tavi, v’Noz” is learned from the fact that the Torah did not use the normal word “Kil’ayim,” but instead used the unusual word “Sha’atnez” (Rashi 5b). The word also teaches to be Doresh Semuchin, since the Torah used the word “Sha’atnez” and did not say outright “Shu’a, Tavi, v’Noz” (TOSFOS 5b DH Kulah).

  10. Yes, sorry I didn’t see that earlier. That’s the one I mean. And I was mistaken about the two-letter words: “sha’atnez” in rabbinic literature is glossed as an acronym for three words, the ones listed in your citation.
    In the classic Bible commentators (Ibn Ezra, Rashi et al.) there is an inter-generational dustup over whether these words actually mean what the putative gloss says they do. There is a fairly common practice, in the Bible commentators, taken over from the early midrash, of adducing etymons that have never been used that way in Rabbinic Hebrew. This has the interesting side effect of creating, or bringing into active usage, these previously non-existent words…

  11. Something as harmless and inconsequential as a semi-colon…

  12. The Amish and the Hasids are wonderful people, but nuts. I agree with Phillip Roth, but won’t repeat his words.
    What about kosher pickles, BTW? Salt solution, no vinegar. Where is that one.

  13. creating, or bringing into active usage, these previously non-existent words
    Much as the universe itself was created. I love this stuff. I’m reminded of an Avram Davidson story involving gematria, but I can’t remember the name at the moment.

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