The prohibition of wearing shaatnez – a garment made of a mixture of wool and linen – comes straight from the Torah and is even more severe than the laws of kashrus. A local shaatnez tester, Yosef Stolz, explains that in kashrus, a small amount of a forbidden substance is considered nullified if it doesn’t exceed a sixtieth of the total mixture. In shaatnez, however, even a tiny linen thread woven into a wool garment makes the whole garment forbidden to wear. Moreover, every moment of wearing such a garment is a transgression of a Torah prohibition.
The occurrence of shaatnez in our clothes is a relatively new phenomenon. In the olden days, when in need of a new garment, a Jew would go to a local tailor, who would know how to avoid shaatnez in a custom-tailored garment. Now, due to mass production and a global economy, many ingredients go into a single garment, and they can come from all over the world. As a result, shaatnez testing has become an essential component of Jewish life.
Shaatnez testing in America began with Mr. Joseph Rosenberger of Williamsburg, New York. A Holocaust survivor who worked as a tailor in Vienna before the war, Mr. Rosenberger promised himself that if he survived the concentration camps he would do something that would make a difference in the Jewish community. When he came to America after the Holocaust, he began to research shaatnez testing. Eventually, it became his life’s mission.
For decades, Mr. Rosenberger was the only shaatnez tester in America. Jews living outside of the New York area would mail him fabric samples from their clothes, and he would inform them if they were permissible to wear. Then, in the 1980s, Rabbi Yoel Schocket of Lakewood, New Jersey learned the skills and set up a training program which began training shaatnez testers all over the country. Currently, Rabbi Yosef Sayagh of Lakewood, NJ still maintains an email list where the shaatnez testers can obtain the latest information in the field.
Mr. Stolz trained under Rabbi Schocket and become the first West Coast shaatnez tester in 1986 under the auspices of Rabbi Avrohom Teichman of Kehillah Kosher. Currently, there are four testers in the Greater Los Angeles area who were trained in the same program.
Unfortunately, says Mr. Stolz, there are others who claim to know how to test for shaatnez, but they never attended the training program and are missing some of the information necessary in this day and age, when continuous updates are a must. Mr. Stolz strongly recommends using the services of certified testers.
Another pet peeve of Mr. Stolz is that some Jewish storeowners claim that their products do not need to be tested for shaatnez. Given the logistics of today’s garment industry, no manufacturer can possibly guarantee that any of their product lines are shaatnez-free. Often, people ask Mr. Stolz if they need to test more than one suit when they bought several identical ones. Mr. Stolz’s answer is always yes. He recalls a case when a community member brought in two suits that looked almost exactly the same. On closer examination, Mr. Stolz noticed that one of them was manufactured in China and the other one in Thailand. He checked both, and found that while the former was shaatnez-free the latter contained shaatnez. “I can bet that I can show the differences between any two suits,” says Mr. Stolz.
There have been attempts by shaatnez checkers to work with the manufacturers and provide a certification, similar to a kashrus certification, before the product hits the stores. However, as of now, all the attempts have failed. There is no such thing as a suit that does not need to be checked.
Speaking of Jewish store owners, Mr. Stolz says, “Why discourage somebody from checking? There is no advantage to that. Just like a restaurant needs a mashgiach, and we don’t just rely on the owner so does a suit need to be tested, even if bought from a Jew.”
Besides suits, every garment that contains linen or wool, or that looks like linen, needs to be tested. Mislabeling on garment labels is very common, says Mr. Stolz. Moreoever, the manufacturer is not required to list any fabric that constitutes less than 5% of all the fabrics used. Sometimes shaatnez is found in ornamentation, such as a linen flower appliqué on a wool sweater. In addition, even fabric items that are not clothing but that give a person pleasure, such as a blanket, also fall under the halachos of shaatnez and need to be tested. The most surprising occurrence of shaatnez, says Mr. Stolz, was a pair of Dr. Scholl’s shoes, which had wool on the outside and linen lining on the inside
Fortunately, in most cases, if shaatnez is found in a garment, it can be taken out by a qualified shaatnez tester. Problematic suits, says Mr. Stolz, usually have shaatnez in the collar, which can be removed. In some cases, however, when shaatnez is found in the fabric itself, the garment cannot be used.