Threaded with Care
December 21, 2023
A Visit with Shatnez Expert Rabbi Yosef Sayagh
Piles of woolen coats.
Crisply folded button-down shirts.
Everywhere you look, there are racks and shelves full of suits, sweaters, coats, scarves, and even hats.
Tickets and labels abound, and a microscope sits on a desk next to various material samples.
From Rabbi Yosef Sayagh’s office, where he checks Lakewood’s garments for shatnez, the veteran shatnez tester shares insight into the details and frequent problems that can come up in the clothing we wear.
The original checker
Rabbi Sayagh, who has been involved in this mitzvah for over three decades, recalls a time when the shatnez scene in the United States was drastically different from the way it is today.
“About 30 years ago, I saw a sign advertising a shatnez checking course with Rabbi Yoel Shochet, and I signed up for it,” he says. “It was at stage in my life where I was interested in learning about a lot of different things. I had a desire to learn everything. So I took courses on safrus, another on kashrus, and a third on teaching—all during the same year that I took the course on shatnez.”
So why did he stick with shatnez?
“Rabbi Yoel Shochet, whose course I took, was the main tester at the time, and when he left to Eretz Yisrael, there was no one in Lakewood to check clothes for shatnez.”
Rabbi Sayagh stepped in to fill the void. Within six months of his own training, he started training others.
“Before Rabbi Shochet started offering his courses, there was only one person in the US who was doing the checking—a Mr. Joseph Rosenberger from Williamsburg—Mike Tress had sponsored his education—and he was really an expert on the topic.”
Mr. Rosenberger had gone to many different colleges to learn fiber identification. “He was very afraid that people would not test properly for shatnez,” Rabbi Sayagh explains. To avoid this scenario, he set up a sample-taking system. He trained people how to take samples and send them to him.
“Another innovation Mr. Rosenberger developed was a solution that served as a shatnez checker. A person could pour the solution onto the fabric, and the color would change. Depending on the colors, one would know if it was shatnez.”
While this setup prevented many problems, it also created others.
The shatnez checkers at the time were not really trained to check for shatnez, and all samples were sent to Mr. Rosenberger. This created a limit on the number of samples that could be sent, and it was possible that shatnez was hiding in other places in the garment that had not been checked.
Rabbi Shochet was originally trained as a sample taker, but he then went to Eretz Yisrael and took a full course by Rav Akiva Shishah. Once he received his certificate in 1979, he started to give courses in America. He retrained sample takers and gave courses to people who were new to the field.
The problem was that most of those he trained lived in out-of-town communities, and there was no one to do it Lakewood.
“After I finished my training, I helped Rabbi Shochet set up shatnez laboratories all over the world. Over the years, as both demand and awareness grew, I trained more people in the process. Today, especially since there are constantly new developments and new updates in the clothing world, I spend much of my day answering questions,” Rabbi Sayagh says.
The checking confusion
For some people, every time they buy new clothing, a good portion of it gets deposited by the shatnez checker. Others visit maybe once a year, when they buy a new coat. And then there are those who don’t even have Rabbi Sayagh’s address.
What are the guidelines? Which items of clothing really need to be checked?
We all know the basic halachah: we are forbidden to mix wool and linen. But how does that play out practically?
Rabbi Sayagh gives clear instructions: “The basic rule is that any garment containing any wool or any linen should be checked.”
In theory, that means that a garment whose tag proclaims it is 100 percent polyester should have a clean pass, but it’s not that simple.
“Legally, clothing manufacturers are only required to list the components of the actual garment on the label. That means that anything extra, like a trimming, could potentially be problematic.”
Such as in the case of an innocent baby hat that Rabbi Sayagh came across several weeks ago. “The actual hat was not a problem, but the pompom on top was made of wool and was attached with a linen thread.” The label gave no indication of this issue.
Piping is another problem. It may contain reprocessed threads or pure linen threads, and it is not listed on the content label.
Additionally, a jacket may proclaim itself to be 100 percent wool, but the inner compartments may be made of linen. “Jackets and blazers should always be checked even if they are polyester, because the inner components often contain wool.”
Most types of shatnez can be easily removed, but occasionally, a garment will be so full of it, it’s impossible to use. “Linen jackets can be extremely problematic. I just removed the entire inside of a jacket because it was reinforced with wool and linen, but most people would just return the outfit.”
What else needs to be checked?
We’ve all heard the famous story of the Steipler, who refused to sit down on the train because the seats may have been made of shatnez. Does such a story apply in 21st-century Lakewood?
When it comes to the chairs in our homes, we don’t need to worry; the majority of upholstery today is not problematic and doesn’t need to be checked. “I did once have a case, though, where a family ordered a custom-made couch and chairs, and they didn’t realize until after the furniture was delivered that the fabric used was shatnez. It was a messy situation.”
What about all the other materials we keep in our homes? “Mid’Oraysa, a person may not cover themselves with shatnez, so a blanket containing wool should be checked.”
As most blankets are filled with polyester or down, this is not usually a problem, but a blanket that contains wool, like a baby blanket or couch blanket, should be checked.
Bed linen, on the other hand, is a misnomer; our bedsheets today don’t contain any trace of the real thing. But again, if it has trimming, it should be checked for the reasons outlined above. Tablecloths follow the same rule. If there’s trimming or a tassel, send it to be checked.
Decorative pillows are a real problem. One issue is the recycled material factor, as that’s what these pillows are usually made of. The second difficulty is the embroidery. Rabbi Sayagh mentions that Amazing Savings recently sold linen pillows with wool flowers embroidered on them. The label clearly stated that it contained wool and linen.
Another issue is oven mitts and pot holders, as they often contain recycled materials. Thankfully, today we have plastic options for those.
Like everything else, the clothing industry is constantly evolving, and to answer questions effectively, one needs to stay on top of the developments.
Rabbi Sayagh gives the usage of hemp, which was illegal in the United States until recently, as an example. “The problem with hemp is that it’s identical to linen. When you look at it, you might think it’s linen. Testers have to be updated all the time about how to check for it. We have the dry-and-twist test, which was used by Mr. Rosenberger, to be able to tell the difference.”
Another new issue is that these days, many garments list bamboo on the label. Some checkers are afraid that bamboo is another term for linen. Additionally, the Chinese have a lot of new names for synthetic fibers, and people aren’t sure what those titles refer to.
A hechsher for clothing
A common misconception is that clothing sold in a Jewish store and tailored to its requirements doesn’t need to be checked.
But you would never ask a non-Jew to cook you some soup without supervision, and the same applies to shatnez. If the company didn’t have supervision while producing the garment, and it meets the specifications (made of wool or linen, has piping or trimming), it must be checked.
Rabbi Sayagh relates a story from the Chelkas Mechokek, who was the rav of Vilna over 250 years ago, to prove his point. The Chelkas Mechokek suspected that the tailors were using linen in the garments, while they insisted they were using hemp.
“The rav called a meeting of all the tailors in the city and handed each of them threads of hemp and linen. Not one of them was able to identify the samples correctly. He therefore instituted a hashgachah for hemp thread to allow its usage. If you wanted to use hemp threads, it needed a hashgachah by a reliable person who saw its production from the time of its harvest.”
On one unique occasion, Rabbi Sayagh actually certified a batch of suits.
“A company flew me to China, and I sat with the owners of the company and explained to them what shatnez is and what we need to do to make the suits kosher. I saw right away that they knew how to make suits very well but didn’t have a clue about how to identify fabrics.”
Rabbi Sayagh went through the factory together with the manager and inspected all the fabrics they would be using in the suits. He showed them exactly which fibers are allowed and which ones are not. Three weeks later, when the process was finished, he flew back to the factory and spot-checked the suits to make sure that the workers had actually used the fabrics that were certified and nothing else. When each check came out clean, he certified the entire production as shatnez free.
“But that isn’t usual. All suits and jackets need to be checked. The problem is that salesmen will tell customers that their suits are shatnez free without having the production tested. There was definitely no mashgiach present during production.
“I once gave a class on shatnez to bar mitzvah boys. Afterward, the boys wanted their jackets to be checked. I was very surprised that so many of them had not gotten their jackets checked. A few of them did in fact have shatnez in their suits.”
The word shatnez is composed of “Satan az”; the Satan is very strong in this area and tries to trip people up.
“With shatnez, every moment is another aveirah. There are families that have one garment, possibly with shatnez, passed down from child to child for years.”
He relates a chilling story. “I once received a phone call from a family requesting a house call. I checked a whole bunch of garments, and then someone asked a daughter of the family if she had checked the sweater she was wearing. She removed it, and it was full of shatnez. The scary part was this girl was very sick, and the family was checking their clothing as a merit for her recovery.”
“Another time, a woman flew to Eretz Yisrael for Sukkos and developed a skin disease. When she came back to America, she checked her clothing and discovered that her two jackets that she wore each Shabbos were full of wool and linen.”
There is a definite need for more awareness and more checkers. But is this something people will be willing to take on as a parnassah?
“It depends on the community you live in. If you live in a small out-of-town community, there won’t be enough work to supply a full parnassah. But if you’re living in a big place, there’s no reason why it can’t be a parnassah. It’s not easy to change a mindset and create new habits, but the benefits of being more careful with this mitzvah are priceless.”
Q: I bought a suit for my son two weeks ago and was told by the shatnez checker that there was no shatnez in it. I then bought the exact same suit, in the same size, for my younger son. Do I need to get it checked?
A: I asked this question to Rav Chaim Kanievsky and Rav Dovid Feinstein. They both answered that it needs to be checked.
Q: I thought that checking is not applicable today because linen is so expensive.
A: There is cheap linen and expensive linen just like there is cheap and expensive silk. The linen scraps that are used in suits or in recycled threads are not expensive and are commonly found.
Q: Can women how to check?
A: I have trained several women, specifically seamstresses.