There were 20 suits ready to be checked on a rack in the front of the Emerald Cleaners in West Orange. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Rabbi Solomon Abraham dropped by, took out his tool kit (mostly razors and glass slides as well as berry oil and olive oil), set up his microscope on the counter, and took the first suit jacket off the hanger.
Abraham isn’t a tailor. He was examining the suit for shatnez, a mixture of linen and wool that is prohibited by the Torah. Like the prohibition on mixing milk and meat, shatnez is one of the forbidden acts known as hukkim, or mitzvot for which the Torah does not provide a ready explanation (see sidebar).
The service, in which suits are checked, fixed, and resewn, takes just a few days.
Rabbi Boruch Klar of the Lubavitch Center in West Orange conceived the project two years ago as a way to promote the mitzva.
He acknowledged that even within the more religious communities, the practice is sometimes overlooked, but following this mitzva, Klar said, helps “exude a positive energy, and positive things will happen. This law is beyond logic, not beneath logic.”
The shatnez checking at Emerald, available to anyone interested in observing the mitzva, is sponsored by Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David, Congregation Ohr Torah, and the Lubavitch Center, in West Orange; Congregation Etz Chaim and Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston; and Congregation Israel of Springfield.
The service is offered at Emerald year-round and the fee is always subsidized (by an anonymous donor), but before the High Holy Days, there’s an extra push, and the prices drop. Instead of $15, it costs $5. “This is the time of year people buy new clothes. And if you stand before God, you want to do it right,” Klar said.
About nine or 10 suits usually come in each week, but the volume rises around the holidays.
As Klar discussed the mitzva, Abraham took a high-end suit off its hanger.
He pointed out that just because the suit says “100 percent wool” doesn’t mean a certain amount of linen hasn’t been used, to support the collar, shoulders, and buttons, especially in more expensive suits. (Abraham warns about suits from Hong Kong and those with Joseph A. Bank and Barney’s labels.)
Abraham, who trained in Lakewood and now lives in Passaic, takes several minutes with each garment. His practiced hand opens seams with a razor in a quick flick of the wrist. He turns the fabric this way and that and pulls the inside out, watching for what he describes as “the waxy gleam” of linen. Not finding anything, he hangs the suit up and declares it kosher.
He uses the microscope only when he thinks he sees linen. He pulls a few suspicious threads from one garment, places them on a glass slide with a few drops of berry oil, spreads the threads as much as possible, and takes a look.
“Nope; it’s not linen,” he says. “Wool has scales on every fiber. Linen looks like bamboo. Cotton is very twirly. And polyester has lots of dots.”
‘Easy and convenient’
When he started his inspections about five years ago, after a week of training and a year of mentoring, he said, it could take him an hour to check a single suit. Today, it’s a matter of minutes.
Joe Battista, who owns the cleaners, wandered in toward the end of Abraham’s work. Of Italian heritage, he likes to greet Klar with a smile and “Sholom aleichem.”
He’s tried to maintain good relationships with his Orthodox neighbors since he opened 11 years ago, even offering Sunday hours for those who can’t come in on Shabbat. He had never heard of shatnez before Klar raised the issue. But, he said, “When Rabbi Klar said how about this shatnez project, I said, ‘Absolutely! Let’s give it a shot,’” he told NJJN.
Asked what he thought about the mitzva, he said, “I think that if this is what they have to do, it’s what they have to do. It’s not wow, yay, or nay. Just okay. If that’s what the Scripture says, let me make it as easy and convenient as possible for customers.”
Suits can be dropped off at Emerald Cleaners for shatnez inspection during regular business hours. The charge, for the next month, is $5; after the High Holy Days the fee goes back to its usual $15. The cost includes checking and resewing the garment; if shatnez is found and a collar or shoulder pads need to be replaced, there is an additional fee for the labor, usually not exceeding $30.