In ancient times, flax had status. It was the plant from which fine linen was produced. Its fibers were spun into garments donned by the high priest for his service in the Holy Temple. For everyday use, flax was the fabric of choice for the aristocratic classes. To the authors of the Mishna, its closely woven strands had just the right consistency to produce the perfect long-lasting wicks needed for Shabbat and Hanukka lights.
But the first time flax is encountered in human history, it is in a highly unholy context.
At an advanced age, the first siblings on earth, Cain and Abel, bring offerings of thanks to God. Cain, who is a farmer, brings flax seeds while Abel, who is a shepherd, brings the fattest sheep from his flocks.
God is displeased with Cain who, when he finally gets around to thanking God for his bountiful crops, settles for a contribution of a handful of seeds when he could have made a gift of luscious fruits from his trees and vines. As Genesis reads, "God turned to Abel and his gift but to Cain and his gift He did not turn." Immediately afterwards, Cain has a fit of jealous rage and the next time he is alone with Abel, he kills him.
Flax (pishtan) is the Talmud's classic combustible material. A Mishna in tractate Baba Kama discusses the case of a camel owner whose animal is laden with flax. If the camel was walking down the street and passed a shop whose owner had negligently left a candle outside - and the flax caught fire and burned - the shop owner would be liable for the destroyed merchandise. If, on the other hand, the flax caught fire from a Hanukka candle that, in accordance with Jewish law, had been lit outside, the shop owner would not be liable.
There is a deeper dimension to the shop owner's innocence in the case of his Hanukka flame igniting the passing load of dry flax. The flax is bulky and voluminous but it can be reduced to ashes by the tiniest spark. The prophet Ovadia compares the populous house of Esau to straw, the numerically inferior house of Jacob to fire, and the even smaller house of Joseph to flame and concludes: "They (the fire and flame) shall burn and consume it (the straw) and no survivor will remain from the House of Esau." The Hanukka flame is closely associated with Joseph since the Torah portions containing his story fall within the eight days of the Hanukka festival.
Rabbi Berland brings out the opinion of Rav Eliezer that it was actually on Hanukka that Cain brought his offering of the highly combustible flax. Thus, Cain would have been upholding the opinion of Beit Shammai, that eight candles should be lit the first night of Hanukka, seven the second, and so on. Cain wanted to see the maximum amount of light all at once, hoping to fill completely the empty space that God had made in order to make room for the universe's creation. Besides, as the Kli Yakar demonstrates, pishtan (flax) may reflect the essence of a korban (offering) since the last letters of the koof reish beit and nun - pei shin tav and nun - in korban spell pishtan.
The Torah's prohibition against wearing linen and wool together may originate in the story of Cain and Abel. Since the combination of their flax/linen and sheep/wool offerings brought about the first murder, we are enjoined not to mix these materials in our garments. We call such a mixture shatnez, which, according to the Zohar, combines the words satan and az, meaning satan is strong. There is no need to give satan a hold over us by wearing shatnez clothes.
The invention of the cotton gin virtually eliminated growing flax for linen. Still, flax is raised both for its fiber, used as padding in upholstery and for cigarette paper, and especially for its seeds. The demand for flax seed increases dramatically from year to year due to its high fiber content, cancer-fighting lignans, and omega-3 oils. Aside from health benefits, the linseed oil from flax seed is used in paint, varnish, and for medicating diseased trees.
Both annual and perennial flax (Linum) species are indigenous to Israel. The delightful five-petal, salviform flowers are held horizontally above thin stems. A field of flax in pink or blue does not shout to get your attention, but subtly takes your breath away nevertheless. Plant flax seed in the spring in any well-drained soil and it will sprout without difficulty.