[ by Charles Cameron — there are times when religions don’t want you to “slip into something a little more casual” — the end times included! ]
I wouldn’t normally draw your attention to books on fabric, but this three-volume set by Julie Parker — each volume a combination fabric dictionary and swatchbook — caught my eye today, because I was thinking specifically of wool, cotton and silk in the context of religious prohibitions.
As regular readers here know, I’m always on the lookout for hints of “end times” thinking anywhere around the globe and in any of the world’s religions (secular ideologies, too) — because they serve as indicators of significant currents and possible shifts in popular sentiment. Accordingly, I wanted to bring our readership’s attention to the current dispute in Malaysia, described in an Agence France Presse post of February 21st from Kuala Lumpur, titled Malaysian fatwa ruling sought on ‘apocalyptic’ silk:
A Malaysian conservative group’s insistence that Muslim men wearing silk was a “sign of the apocalypse” prompted a call Friday for religious authorities to study whether to impose a fatwa on the fabric, a report said.
An activist with the conservative Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia told reporters on Thursday that silk was forbidden for men, citing Islamic literature that describes the prophet Muhammad as taking that stance.
Such literature “also states that one of the tanda kiamat (signs of the apocalypse) is when pure silk is being worn,” association activist Sheikh Abdul Kareem S. Khadaied was quoted saying by the Malay Mail.
That is, thus far, the only eschatologically-connected fabric-related issue that I’m aware of, and of special interest for that reason. But commandments regarding the appropriateness or otherwise of particular fabrics are also to be found in the Tanakh / Old Testament, eg at Deuteronomy 22:9–11:
Thou shalt not sow thy vineyard with divers seeds: lest the fruit of thy seed which thou hast sown, and the fruit of thy vineyard, be defiled. Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together. Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woollen and linen togethe
and Leviticus 19.19:
Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.
The need to keep different things clearly separated, and to avoid those things (eg shellfish) which appear to bleed between otherwise clearly distinct categories, is a characteristic which Mary Douglas explored fruitfully in her book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), and one of the more interesting insights to be gleaned there is that declaring something taboo is more like labeling power lines “high tension” — it doesn’t demarcate the bad from the good so much as the dangerously intense or highly charged from the safe and normal…
Thus we discover in consulting Jacob Milgrom‘s JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers that there’s one place in the Torah where wool and linen are indeed permitted to be mixed — in the tzitzit or fringers of Jewish ritual prayer shawls:
What is there about the tzitzit that would remind its wearer of holiness? The earliest rabbinic sources, perhaps dating back to biblical days, taught that the tzitzit are sha‘atnez, a mixture of wool and linen. In fact white linen cords and dyed woolen cords were found in the Bar Kockba caves, proving that the rabbinic teaching was actually observed. Sha‘atnez is forbidden because it is a holy mixture, reserved exclusively for priests and forbidden to nonpriests. .. Thus the tzitzit, according to the rabbis, are modeled after a priestly garment that is taboo for the rest of Israel!
As the centuries and millennia turn, however, situations change — and with them the styles of interpretation and degrees of importance assigned to such rules by various streams within a given religion. In some cases new rulings are called for to meet the changing circumstances — hence the use of qiyas (argument by analogy) in Islamic jurisprudence to cover cases not clearly accounted for in the Qur’an or reliable ahadith.
Here for instance, is a quote from the blogsite of a Christian denomination (a “traditionalist” breakaway group from the Worldwide Church of God, for those interested in such details) bringing the discussion of mixed cloths up into the twenty-first century to address synthetic fibers:
What about the mixture of synthetic, man-made fabrics, such as Dacron, nylon, polyester, and rayon, with either cellulose or protein fibers? Many have not realized that a combination of synthetic and either plant or animal material does not necessarily break the biblical principle. Synthetic materials are usually made to have essentially the same characteristics as the natural fibers. Otherwise, they would not mix well. The stronger fibers would cut and tear away from the weaker ones or would not combine well in other ways. In other words, it is perfectly acceptable to manufacture fabrics from a combination of fibers which are naturally or artificially compatible with one another. It is the mixture of fibers with markedly differing qualities which this biblical principle concerns.
It should be noted that such combinations produce a cheaper garment, with respect to quality, than one made with the best grades of pure fibers. On the other hand, a fabric made from low-grade, natural fibers is usually improved by the addition of compatible man-made fibers. Any good tailor or seamstress knows that the best quality clothing is made from 100 percent wool, cotton, and so forth. Nevertheless, one need not throw away or destroy clothing which may be of lower quality or a wrong mixture. Wearing such materials is not a sin in itself. Rather, God does not want manufacturers producing shoddy materials in order to take advantage of their customers.
A wise principle to follow in selecting either a pure or mixed garment is to purchase the best quality one can afford—it will last longer and fit better than inferior, less expensive clothes. The primary reason to do this is to honor and glorify God in what we wear, especially if the clothing is to be worn primarily for church services. However, it is not wise to go into debt buying better quality than one can afford.
Religion — an endlessly fascinating window on human cultures and the changing times…
And as an inveterate book-lover and collector, I have to say those three volumes from Rain City Publishing look pretty neat! Swatches!