The dress was perfect. Light worsted yarn woven into glowing blue and green medallions, it fit that elusive category of “transitional” clothing. And, just before Thanksgiving, it was on sale. I didn’t care if it was held over from the summer or orphaned from the fall season. I bought it immediately, threw out the sales slip and put the dress away for the spring. Passover, or maybe Shavuot, I thought.
This past winter, I was packing for a trip to Florida where I would speak at a large synagogue. The weather forecast was balmy, just right for a preview of my new dress. I dug it out and tried it on. It felt great, except for the label, which itched the back of my neck. I took the dress off, and using a pair of small scissors, cut out the offending tag. As I folded the dress up to put into my suitcase, I noticed another label, a sliver of nylon ribbon with print in several languages on it, sewn along a skirt side seam. “Why not get rid of all possible distractions now, before I’m standing up in front of the crowd,” I thought. I retrieved my scissors and began to snip the thin slip listing the garment’s fiber content. The writing caught my eye: 33 percent silk, 30 percent rayon, 30 percent wool, 4 percent cotton, 3 percent linen. My heart sank. Shatnez.
I felt a thud of doom. According to the Torah, wool and linen constitute a forbidden mixture. Most commonly this is a problem confronted by male haberdashery due to linen lining used to stiffen the lapels of wool suits. Observant men submit their garments to shatnez detection laboratories and nimble tailors perform necessary adjustment by removing the linen lining.
I knew there was no hope for my dress, whose very essence lay in an inseparable weave of fibers. Dress in hand and with a heavy heart, I headed downtown, back to the department store. I had no idea what I would say. I’ve explained why I keep kosher and observe the Sabbath many times. In a world of vegan, gluten- and lactose-free menus, people understand dietary restrictions. And deluged as they are by constant cyber connectivity, people respect and even envy the notion of a day of rest. But telling someone that I couldn’t wear a dress made of mixed linen and wool for religious reasons was unfamiliar territory. It seemed so odd, so illogical. This was a realm of spiritual metaphysics I had not tangled with before.
Customer service was tucked away behind the escalator. I presented the dress and my handful of sheared labels.
“What does the problem seem to be?” asked the representative in a helpful voice.
“I know I bought this dress over two months ago and I don’t have the sales slip and I cut out the labels. I’m sorry … but the fabric irritates me. I just can’t wear it.” My words came out in run-on awkwardly apologetic sentences. I chose not to specify that the main irritant was spiritual. It felt too complicated. Plus, it was my responsibility to check for shatnez. I should have been more careful. I was prepared to lose money. Maybe even to give the dress away.
The customer service person took the dress and retreated to her computer for a few minutes. She returned to the window.
“I can give you the sale price it’s at now. It is past the time we usually accept returns but I’ll make an accommodation.”
“Really?” I was delighted. “Thank you. I really appreciate this.”
Relived of the offending garment, I rode down the escalator grateful for having learned a lesson so easily. I know that returning a dress at a small financial loss does not constitute a significant stand for religious principle. But for me it was a small and intimate commitment to following an ancient tradition even if it didn’t make complete sense in contemporary terms. Maybe that’s the point. Shatnez is among the commandments that have no obvious moral or ethical principle except to pay attention, to not take availability for granted.
As I crossed the street, my eye caught sight of an attractive striped sweater with a jaunty, nautical design that hinted springtime. I went in and inspected the fiber content label. Eighty percent cotton, 17 percent nylon, 3 percent spandex. Perfect.
Michelle Friedman is the director of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City.