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Thought for the Day: It Makes a Difference Why It's Different -- Lessons From Sha'atnez

The gemara (Brachos 19b) says that if you see someone wearing sha'atnez, you must tell them and they must remove it immediately -- even if it will leave them in nothing but their birthday suit (though I think it unlikely that even woolen long underwear would be sha'atnez).  Why?
(אֵין חָכְמָה, וְאֵין תְּבוּנָה וְאֵין עֵצָה, לְנֶגֶד השם (משלי כא:ל
There is neither wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against HaShem. (Proverbs 21:30)
Meaning to say, the Torah says it, so deal.  Something like that actually happened to me many years ago.  I was wearing very warm boots; very warm because they were two part: a water proof outer and a woolen felt inner.  Ahhh... Someone came over to me during vasikin one Shabbos (when it was snowing furiously and there was already a six inch accumulation) to tell me, "I think I heard that some of the boots from that manufacturer might be sha'atnez d'rabanan."  I left the inners there, used my wool mittens in their place, and walked home with my hands in my pockets.  (They were not, in fact sha'atnez, but I still got a great story out of the ordeal.)

The gemara then spends most of a page arguing the point.  (Kind of like arguing with your wife.  You know you are going to lose -- because she is right; right, dear?  -- but you just can't help yourself.)  First the gemara notes that we have another ma'amar Chazal that says that כבוד הבריות/human dignity is so important that it pushes off a Torah prohibition.  The gemara explains that the Torah prohibition that is pushed off is the "don't transgress the decrees of the Rabbis".  In other words, if it is sha'atnez d'rabanan, you can wait till you are in a private setting to both tell your friend and for him to strip.  Otherwise, no deal.

The gemara than tries two more attacks, one from returning a lost object, one from burying an abandoned corpse.  In both cases there are exemptions that seem to come from a consideration of human dignity.  Actually, both are based on an exegesis of the Torah verses themselves, but the gemara wants to use that to prove that the Torah is revealing it's intention that human dignity should be taken into consideration in all cases.  The gemara concludes that human dignity -- like any other Rabbinic decree -- can only help you to refrain from doing a mitzvah (such as returning a lost object or burying an abandoned corpse), but it cannot allow you to transgress a prohibition -- such as wearing sha'atnez.  Known in the vernacular as: שב ואל תעשה שאני/to sit and do nothing is different.

In this process, we discovered the extent and mechanism of Rabbinic decrees, that monetary mitzvos do not necessarily operate the same way that "ritual" mitzvos do, the importance of human dignity in every evaluation of how to act, and what it means in very practical terms that HaShem's Will as revealed through the Torah and as explained by our Chazal is the ultimate decider.

Not a bad day's work.  (It was actually more like a week...)

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