Sha'atnez     (1)

Story by Sha'ul Tshernichovsky

translated from the Hebrew by David P. Stern


    We live in the age of encyclopaedias, and you find people who believe that in an encyclopaedia they reach ultimate knowledge, missing nothing. Yet I believe that even the best encyclopaedia fails in its duty. Who is to blame? Of course, the publishers, who believe with all their soul that scholars and experts, German professors or at the very least doctors are the ones to be entrusted with editing an encyclopaedia.

    I claim otherwise. Only if the job were handed to writers of stories and novels, then perhaps we might have encyclopaedias worthy of their name.

    I limit myself to one example, from which you can infer the rest.

    You might like to know, for instance, about the town of Rosczan. So you open the volume of the encyclopaedia covering the letter R, on such-and- such a page, to the entry "Rosczan", and you find: "Rosczan--Grodno province, Slonim district ... by the census of 1847, it had 1556 Jewish souls, and it contains a Talmud Torah (1910)."

    Now let us move over and check under item "Prosczan": "Prosczan--Grodno province, Grodno district. In the year 1847 it held, according to the census, 2580 Jewish souls, and it contains a Talmud Torah (1910)."

    What distinguishes Rosczan from Prosczan in the encyclopaedia? Nothing. And what is Rosczan itself? Nothing much, either.

    Let me tell you what Rosczan is, and the story happens to be close to the time of that census, perhaps ten years off either way.

    You should know that my late father was born in Rosczan. Who was my father and what did he do? What difference does it make? The main thing, he was a God-fearing Jew who obeyed the commandments. His business was in Riga, that is, in Riga he would earn his money and in Rosczan he would spend it. There in Rosczan he owned a house, there he had a place of his own in the synagogue, there he would pay to have his sons taught and there he would obtain clothes for himself and his household from Reb Shmerl, tailor for men.

    At that time, we are told, Shmerl was already an elderly man, and he had also provided clothes for my father's father, and maybe his father as well. In Dad's house he therefore had a right by tradition. He knew by heart the measurements of all members of the household and since fashions would not change, he knew how to provide for everyone's needs.

    It was enough if you brought the fabric to his house. If a man wished, it was even possible to avoid the trouble of shopping for the fabric and certainly for the lining, for everything was predictable, all was known ahead of time. In fact, one could have believed that the world knows only one kind of outer fabric, one kind of lining, and one style for all clothes, perhaps even only one tailor...

    Otherwise, one had to go to the store, choose the merchandise, haggle over the price, consult the tailor and make up one's mind. It was all done for the sake of enjoying the purchase, the satisfaction of a person who all his life is engaged in selling, when he himself goes and buys.

    Dad's coat, of which I am about to tell, was also crafted by Shmerl the tailor. Reb Shmerl who used to say: "Just as the Torah is deeper than the sea, so is the art of tailoring deeper than any depths."

    And indeed, tailoring has mysteries enfolded in it, hidden crannies not seen by outsiders. There is the revealed art, that of the outer fabric, but there also exists the secret art of attachments which the mind of a simple person cannot understand. A coarse hair may suddenly pop up and rise,` near the lapel of all places, and a layman cannot divine where it has come from and to what purpose.

    Such an "accessory" isn't within the authority of the buyer. When he finishes choosing the fabric and the lining, the storekeeper passes a word to his assistant who hurries and bundles together assorted lengths of fabric. No one asks the client and he isn't told anything.

    Once, early in fall, my father went to Riga and took with him as usual his good winter coat. First, it was a new garment; secondly, chilly days were approaching; and third, a winter coat adds respect to its wearer and is a fine promoter of credit.

    And then came the day--oh, bitter, woeful day--when my father got caught by a nail protruding from some tumbledown fence and the flap of his coat was torn. The innkeeper and his wife came to his side and customers who happened there joined them, all sharing dad's sorrow and pain, recounting the sins of the fence's owner and criticizing authorities who do not control things they ought to. And in the end they decided and decreed that the coat could only be made whole by the hands of a tailor, of an expert mender. And so it was: after each of them named his favorite tailor the inkeeper sent for one of them, a tailor he knew well, and handed him the coat. And early the next morning the tailor returned the mended coat to its owner, was paid and left.

    A week passed and my father had almost forgotten the tear. Then suddenly, one morning, the innkeeper's wife comes to his room with a message: the tailor who had mended the coat would like to have a word with my father.

    "What can I say to him?", my father wonders.
    "He does not want to say."
    "Let him come."
The tailor enters. Only now does my father look at him properly. Before him stands a skinny old man with sunken chest, protruding eyes and a delicate face, all his appearance seems to say: a fine, God-fearing Jew.

    And why did he go to all this trouble? Does he plan to marry into the family?

    He does not plan to marry into the family, and neither is he a marriage broker. But he is a God-fearing Jew and therefore he would like to reveal to him a thing which did not tell when he brought the work to his house.

    "What is this thing?"

    Answers the tailor and says, it is something difficult for a person not trained as a tailor to distinguish. The lining of that coat, the same coat he had treated and mended, is... linsey-woolsey, sha'atnez.

    My father answers and says, this is impossible. He would go out of his way not to buy sha'atnez, the cloth-dealer is an honest man, and the tailor who made the coat is a proper Jew. Heaven forbid such a thing from happening. Sha'atnez! Have his ears heard what his mouth had uttered? An explicit ban of the scriptures... incredible!

    And the tailor answers and says, heavens forbid, he does not doubt my father's innocence, but sometimes it is hard even for experts to determine a thing like this. When he recognized this thing his heart hesitated, he did not know what to do. At first he thought, perhaps my father was one of the liberal-minded: the young generation! Let him do what he wants... And then he thought: better if he breaks the law unwittingly rather than deliberately. But his soul knew no rest until he had asked and found who owned that coat, and was told it was someone careful on matters of faith. He is therefore doing his duty and reporting the matter to my father.

    Still my father cannot comprehend. How is this possible? Sha'atnez! Such things are not allowed in the community of Israel!

    Answers the tailor and says, he is just doing his job. And if my father suspected him of saying what he did only to obtain further work, let him know right away that he will not undertake to repair this coat. Let my father do whatever he wishes, he has done his part. And he bade him good-bye and turned towards the door.

    In the end, my father handed his coat over for examination and for expunging the sha'atnez. And of all people, he chose that same tailor, for my father saw that he was a truly honest man and his intentions were all for the sake of heaven. God forbid that my father should wear a garment tainted with sha'atnez!

    And on the very day when father returned to Rosczan he called for "long" Shmerl, to be distinguished from another Shmerl in Rosczan, also a tailor but called "short".

    A short while later Shmerl comes over to our house, acting friendly and greeting father with a "hello." He opens the conversation politely, asking father how he is doing, about his business in the city and the hardships of the road. Deep in his heart he feels assured he has another job lined up. But father immediately goes to the heart of the matter and tells him about the sha'atnez in the coat.

    Reb Shmerl jumps as if bitten by a snake. He won't accept it: "would Shmerl ever put sha'atnez in a garment?" He is willing and ready to swear by his beard and sidelocks that he would not. This fabric... has he given up his familiarity with fabrics? A man like him would not commit a sin for a piece of cloth worth pennies. So what happened? That bum tailor in Riga--how many crazy people does one meet in the market? He is not ready to listen to such nonsense...

    My father stands by his argument, and so does the tailor.

    Late in the afternoon my father goes to the synagogue to pray, and between "mincha" and "maariv", between afternoon and evening prayers, a crowd of acquaintances and friends descended on him. After all, he had just returned from the city! And look here--the entire tribe of tailors has come, too. Led by Reb Shmerl, followed by the older and better known tailors, with those of the second rank behind them, and the young ones bringing up the rear--they all know, every one of them heard the of the sha'atnez and now they wish to hear the story from my father's mouth.

    And after they hear it from my father himself, they face each other, shrug, pull their beards and look in each other's face. How is this? Impossible! This fabric is used by everyone, our forefathers already used it, ever since Rosczan became a town. Sha'atnez! If so, "there is no house where there was no dead"(2), meaning, sha'atnez. The entire town wears garments of the same fabric.

    Between mincha and maariv, in the synagogue--usually, one man studies a page of Talmud, another reads a book, this one recites psalms, each according to his ability. That evening, however, the tables emptied and all the congregation crowded towards the eastern wall, surrounding my father and the tailor.

    That evening every eye watched the tailors. Their entire gang stood there, even a few of the apprentices were dragged along. And in the course of conversation listeners could hear of past occurences of sha'atnez. The old ones would cackle, pass a red handkerchief over moist eyes and recount all sorts of events which once happened. Young ones held their lapels and their eyes sparkled: they too had things to tell.

    Maariv! The conversation stops.

    But next day, again between mincha and maariv, the tailors and homeowners gathered again at the eastern wall. Father speaks and the tailors speak, and all the congregation talks and participates.

    And not just between mincha and maariv, but also in the market and in the street, in the store and at the butcher's, between one customer and another, between one dish and the next, between man and wife, in the kitchen and in the bedroom there is no conversation which does not revolve around sha'atnez.

    And the community of Rosczan was divided, shopkeepers and tailors on one side and houseowners on the other.

    The houseowners began with "who knows" and soon were moved to slight the art of tailors and to find fault with their deeds, until at the end they agreed that no profession was more demeaned than theirs. And never did the reputation of tailors sink lower than in those days. They were made a public example, they and their wives, sons and all that was theirs.

    And who knows how long the commotion would have lasted if a wise thought hadn't arisen by chance in the gabbai's (3)head, to wit: since the town of Lodz is firmly established and one of his relatives is going to Lodz within a few days, intending to return soon, and since in Lodz lives the gabbai's brother-in-law with connections among the merchants, and who in any case would know whom to contact in this matter--let a fabric sample be sent to him and he will provide an answer.

    This was agreed upon and done, and the town quieted down.

    Another week passed, and again came the time between mincha and maariv. Every member of the synagogue was at his place, this with his book and that with his chapter of scriptures, each in his corner and with his colleagues--when suddenly the door opened with a thunderous noise, and the man who rushed inside did not bother to shut it again even though it was chilly outside. The man was agitated and could hardly hold himself, his mouth hung open, his eyes protruded and his hands held onto his lapel. He did not venture greetings nor did he return any, but when he reached the center of the hall he drew himself up and with a full voice cried:

    "In Lodz they said--sha'atnez!"

    If the skies had split on that cold autumn day, if lightning had flashed and thunder had rolled, it would not have hit the congregation with more force than that frightful message: sha'atnez! Those sitting were petri fied, those standing froze, even those bent over pulpits, with open mouth and hand outstretched ready to scratch their backs.

    For the affliction of sha'atnez hung heavy all over Rosczan: in man and woman, old and young, rich and poor, chassid and mitnaged, scholar and illiterate, in garment and dress, jacket and overcoat, fur and robe, lapel and sleeve, edging and underlining, pocket and collar, nothing escaped it. All the world over--sha'atnez!

    And after the first panic and the dreadful silence, a terrible outcry and commotion began, the likes of which had never been heard in Rosczan. Every man wanted to hear again from the lips of the messenger the terrible pronouncement "sha'atnez."

    Then the second panic hit: off with the "capota" and the "zupitza"! Rid yourselves of the sha'atnez! Undress! Away with jacket and vest! It it's cold outside--so what! But... excuse me, isn't it also necessary to take off... the pants? Let anything wearable be brought from the home: scarves, kerchiefs, just as long as it is untainted. And yet: how can one step outside without pants? It is impossible to move without pants... oy, oy!

    To add to the calamity the dayan(4), who might have provided the guidance of authority, was absent from the synagogue. And so the people took off their garments... (5)  

    And it was morning and it was evening, the next day. (6)

    The elders of that generation tell us: there were never better days for tailors since Rosczan was founded, and some say, since God created tailors in this world. People would congregate upon the doors of master tailors, ordinary tailors, even patchers, flatter them, fawn on them and try to please them with words. And the tailors who just one day earlier stood at the very bottom rose to great importance. And many houseowners converted to the tailors' side, for the fear of the tailors had fallen upon them. (7)

    There wasn't a man in those days who did not need a tailor and no garment that escaped a tailor's hand. Tailors had their hands full with work, they would rise up early and work late into the night, eliminating every scrap of cloth suspected of sha'atnez.

    Whoever saw Rosczan in those days saw a wondrous town. Until the sha'atnez was excised, until coats and furs were fixed and pants returned to public use, the children of Israel would go out wearing sheets and tablecloths, coloured wraps and warm kerchiefs, cover themselevs with scarves and wear whatever was handy--without lining, without collars, without sleeves, as long as it was free of taint. And of the schoolchildren, some stayed home while others went out in undershirts and in garments of their mothers and grandmothers.

    This is Rosczan. Can you find that in today's encyclopaedias?

          Berlin, 5693 [1932-3]

<1>   Linsey-woolsey fabric: "Thou shalt not wear sha'atnez, wool and linen together" (Deuteronomy, 22, 11)   return
<2>   Exodus, 12, 30     return
<3>   Gabbai--officer of the congregation who supervises the calling in the synagogue of persons to read the scroll   return
<4>   Dayan--religious magistrate, officer of the congregation   return
<5>   wording of Exodus, 32, 3.     return
<6>   Genesis, 1, 8.     return
<7>   Esther, 8, 17.     return



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Last updated 7 February 2003