Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Why not wear linsey-woolsey clothes?

There are some rules of the Old Testament that are generally acknowledged as healthy, upright, and reasonable. The commands against murder, stealing, false witness, and adultery are prime examples of laws that are well-regarded. And then there are the other laws whose inclusion is puzzling to say the least, since we cannot determine any possible purpose of that law. One such puzzling law is the restriction against wearing clothes made of both wool and linen:
You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen. (Deuteronomy 22:11, JPS)
Maimonides, one of the renowned Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages, claimed to have determined the reason. On the view that some of the obscure rules were intended to teach monotheism and to distance the Jews from surrounding nations' idol-worship, Maimonides had reviewed some of the books available to him that gave details of pagan rituals. He writes:
For the same reason [that it was the custom of idolatrous priests], the wearing of garments made of linen and wool is prohibited; the heathen priests adorned themselves with garments containing vegetable and animal material, whilst they held in their hand a seal made of a mineral. This you find written in their books. (Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 37)
Apparently, back in the day, wearing animal/vegetable mixed clothes was to dress like a pagan priest who was prepared 2 parts out of 3 for an idol-worship ritual. At that point he did not mention exactly which books he was citing, though based on books he mentions elsewhere, the first place I might check is the ancient work Nabatean Agriculture, should an English translation ever become available, or an on-line copy available via web translation software.

3 comments:

Martin LaBar said...

Possibly this, and the command not to yoke two draft animals of different species together, were to symbolize the separation required of a holy people?

Weekend Fisher said...

Through a different means than you and I might expect. When we see things like that, we might naturally think, "It's the separation of the different things that teaches a lesson of separating a holy people." From his point-of-view, the linsey-woolsey -- and the yoked-animals also -- was something that the pagans actually did, and so the Hebrews wouldn't; not (in his explanation) because the separation of the kinds symbolized something, but because it was an existing pagan practice, sometimes directly connected with idol-worship rituals, and *not doing that* was itself the separation. (His explanation of the different animals yoked is that pagans did some interbreeding of animals which is also forbidden in the Torah, and the "don't even yoke them" was to put some distance between the Hebrews and that practice.)

In some cases he found references in existing pagan books about their cult worship to substantiate his views. His main sources on the actual rituals of idolatry and magic seem to have been books called Nabatean Agriculture and Tomtom.

There may be room for wondering whether he was far enough removed from the original setting of ancient Israel to actually know the reason, or whether he was just speculating. He freely admitted that "forbid something that the idolatrous nations did" was his go-to explanation when he didn't know what else might have been the reason for a law.

Martin LaBar said...

OK. Thanks.