From The Year of Living Biblically

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  • in loves it when our friends make good. A few years ago I interviewed A.J. Jacobs as he was working on the book he's promoting right now: The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Last week alone he stopped by Late Night with Conan O'Brien, the Today Show and Fresh Air in NPR so I'm flattered that he remembered little old me. Enjoy an excerpt from his book below, and don't be a cheapskate: buy it!

Day five. I've made a list of the Top Five Most Perplexing Rules in the Bible. I plan to tackle all five this year, but I figured I'd start with one that requires neither violence nor pilgrimages. Namely: The ban on wearing clothes made of mixed fibers. It's such an odd proscription, I figured there was zero chance anyone else in America was trying to follow it.

Of course, I was flat wrong.

My friend Eddy Portnoy - who teaches history at the Jewish Theological Seminary -- told me he recently spotted a flyer in Washington Heights advertising a shatnez tester. Shatnez, he informed me, is the Hebrew word for mixed fibers. A tester will come to your home and inspect your shirts, pants, sweaters and suits to make sure you have no hidden mixed fibers.

So today, I dial the number, and a man named Mr. Berkowitz agrees to make a house call. Mr. Berkowitz arrives right on time. He has a gray beard that descends below his collar, large glasses, and a black tie tucked into the top of his pants, which rest a good six inches above his navel. His yarmulke is slightly askew.

Mr. Berkowitz clicks open his black American Tourister rolling suitcase. Inside, his tools: a microscope, an old canister with the faded label "vegetable flakes", and various instruments that look like my mother's sewing kit after a genetic mutation. He spreads them out on my living room table. Mr. Berkowitz reminds me of an Orthodox CSI. God's wardrobe detective.

He gives me a shatnez primer. Shatnez is not just any mixed fiber. Poly-cotton blends and lycra-spandex blends--those are fine. The problem is mixing wool and linen. That's the forbidden combination, according to Deuteronomy 22:11 (the Bible's only other verse that talks about mixed fibers).

"How do you tell when something is shatnez?" I ask.

Well, you can't trust the clothing labels, says Mr. Berkowitz. They're often inaccurate. "You have to look at the fibers yourself. All the fibers look different under the microscope," he says.

He draws me a diagram: linen looks like a piece of bamboo. Wool is like a bunch of stacked cups. Cotton resembles twisted streamers. And polyester is smooth, like straw.

I bring out a pile of sweaters, and he goes to work. He snips some fibers off a black V-neck sweater and puts them under the microscope.

"See if you can tell," he says.
I squint into the microscope.

"It's polyester," I say.

"No. Look. The stacked cups? It's wool."

He seems disappointed. Clearly I'm not a shatnez inspector protégé. Mr. Berkowitz is kind, gentle, but persistently frazzled. And I wasn't helping matters.

Mr. Berkowitz makes some notes on a sheet that looks like a hospital chart. The sweater is kosher, he tells me. So is the next one I bring out.

"Look," he says, motioning to the microscope.

"Wool?" I say.

"No. Cotton."


I bring out my wedding suit. This could be trouble, he says: wool suits often have linen hiding somewhere in them, especially Italian suits, which this was.

Mr. Berkowitz gets out a tool that resembles a fondue fork and begins digging into various parts of my suit - the collar, the pockets, the sleeves - with something approaching ferocity. This suit is the only suit I own, and it cost me about a third of my salary. I'm a little alarmed. I'm glad Julie's not here to see this.

"Is it shatnez?" I ask.

He doesn't answer for a minute. He's too busy with the microscope. His beard is squashed around the eyepiece.

"I have a strong suspicion this is linen," he says. The alleged culprit is some canvas that was hiding under the suit's collar

Mr. Berkowitz spins the fabric with his fingers.

"I'm sending it to the laboratory to make sure, but I am almost convinced it is linen." He tells me I'll have to put my only suit into storage, or get it de-linened by a tailor.

Mr. Berkowitz seems suddenly unfrazzled. He is relieved.

"It's joyous," he says. "If I save someone from breaking a commandment, it gives me a little high." He does a fist-pump. "I never took drugs, but I imagine this is what it feels like."

His joy is infectious. I feel momentarily happy too. But then return to my baseline bewilderment.

"It's really that important not to wear linen and wool?" I ask.

"Are some commandments in the Bible more important than others?"

"All equal," he says. Then pauses. "Well, I can't say that. Not murdering is at a very high level. So is adultery and not worshiping idols."

He seems torn. On the one hand, all the rules are from the same place. The Orthodox Jews follow a list of 613 rules originally compiled by the great medieval rabbi Maimonides from the first five books of the Bible. On the other hand, Mr. Berkowitz also has to admit that homicide is worse than wearing an unkosher blazer.

Before Mr. Berkowitz leaves, I ask him the obvious, staring-us-in-the-face question: Why? Why would God care if we wore mixed fibers?

The answer is: We don't know.

There are theories. Some say it was to train the ancient Hebrews to keep things separate so they'd be less inclined to intermarry. Some say it's an allusion to Cain and Abel's sacrifice --- Cain offered flax to God and Abel offered sheep. Some say that the heathens used to wear the combination, and the Hebrews were trying to distinguish themselves from the pagans in any way they could.

Bottom line, though: We don't know.

"This is a law that God gave us. We have to trust him. He's all-powerful. We're like children. Sometimes parents have laws children don't understand. Like when you tell a child not to touch fire, he doesn't understand why, but it is good for him."

In Judaism, the Biblical laws that come without explanation -and there are many -- are called "Chukim." This is such a law. The point is, you can never know what is important in the long term. God might have a different measuring scale than us. In fact, some say it's more crucial to follow the inexplicable ones, because it shows you're committed, that you have great faith.

The notion of obeying laws that have no rational explanation is a jarring one. For most of my life, I've been working under the paradigm that my behavior should, ideally, have a logical basis. But if you live Biblically, this is not true. I have to adjust my brain to this.

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