The Shoes We Wear: A Statement of Identity and Values

How beautiful are thy feet in sandals.

– Song of Songs 7:2

A few days ago in the Argentinian shantytown where we were volunteering, a four-year-old boy said he liked my zapatos (shoes). Our shoes can reveal much about our socio-economic status, as I have been told many times while traveling in developing countries. While I am always surprised by this, since I think of my shoes as utterly basic, never have I been as affected as I was this time. This boy, who is not wearing shoes today and is unlikely to be wearing them anytime in the future, opened up my heart.

Shoes are symbolic in Jewish thought. On Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av, and during shiva (7 days of mourning for an immediate relative) it is prohibited to wear leather shoes. Similarly, Jewish priests (kohanim) take their shoes off when they give their priestly blessing. Today, some Chassidim still remove their shoes before approaching the gravesite of a holy person. One Talmudic passage even implies that shoes are more important than a home: “A person should sell the roof beams of his house to buy shoes for his feet” (Shabbat 129a). Shoes contribute to our basic sense of human dignity: Rabbi Akiva instructed his son Joshua never to go barefoot.

The most famous biblical stories about shoes are about the importance of removing them before G-d. Joshua encounters an angel of G-d, and the angel tells him to take off his shoes, since he is standing on holy ground (Joshua 5:13-15). We see the same behavior with Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:5). The head of a synagogue in India where I spent Pesach a few years ago told me that they do not wear shoes in the synagogue because of the latter story. There is a humility that comes with being shoeless. As one’s skin touches the earth, one can feel the frailty of one’s humanity. Seeing the dirt upon one’s toes is a reminder of our inevitable return to that earth. 

Personally, when I enter a home, especially my own, I always take off my shoes. It is a sign that I feel that I am in a special place. Home is a place where I have a lower voice, speak more intimately, and open myself up. Taking my shoes off is an expression to all that I have removed myself from the chaotic and tough outside world and have entered a more soft and humble mode of being.

There is an ancient Jewish practice called chalitza, in which a woman whose husband has died is absolved from the obligation to marry his brother by pulling the shoe off his foot and spitting in his face (Deuteronomy 25: 5-10). This is meant to shame him for not taking responsibility for her. Shoes represent power, and to remove another’s shoe is to humble him. There are many parallels in other cultures, such as Cinderella’s glass slipper, which wins her the hand of the Prince, or Dorothy’s ruby shoes in The Wizard of Oz, whose magical power is to resist the attempt of the Wicked Witch to seize them, and later return Dorothy to Kansas.

The chalitza ceremony also reminds us that shoes for many are symbolic of suffering. Millions have suffered and continue to suffer from the practice of foot binding, an incredibly painful and debilitating custom in which a young girl’s feet are broken in multiple places (four toes are folded under the foot until they break, and the arch is broken to shorten its length to about 3 inches), and then maintained by binding the feet with cloth. In spite of opposition from the Manchu dynasty and the Nationalist (Kuomintang) government, the practice persisted until 1949, when the Communist government finally stopped foot binding for young girls. However, many women age 60 and older still keep their feet bound, as the process of allowing the foot to grow would involve further bone breaks and pain, and because some are loyal to the old ways. We should not encourage anyone, especially women, to inflict such pain in the pursuit of a perverted sense of the erotic.

Some have begun to address the importance of the shoes we wear. Tom’s Shoes, for example, will donate a pair of new shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes you buy from them. Of course, with millions more wearing shoes, the issue of killing more animals to get the leather for shoes also becomes an issue for many. As a result, there is now also a whole industry of vegan shoes. Finally, there is even a shoe museum in Toronto, which my wife Shoshana and I recently had the pleasure of visiting, dedicated to the history of shoes.

When I was in Senegal last year, a young boy named Mamadou was persistent that I repair my shoe after it tore. I would have discarded these shoes, but Mamadou taught me about the importance of valuing the shoes I own. It is said that the Kotzker Rebbe used to wrap up his worn-out shoes before throwing them away and saying, “How can I simply toss away a pair of shoes that have served me so well over the course of years.” He understood that there was almost a holiness to something so basic that has enabled us to be mobile and fulfill our life missions. As Forrest Gump famous said about his shoes, “They were my magic shoes, they would take me anywhere.” Shoes truly are a magical blessing.

The rabbis teach that one should say the blessing “Blessed are You Who has provided me my every need” when putting on shoes (Brachot 60b) and thus Rashi explains that there is nothing more degrading than walking barefoot in public (Shabbat 129a).

We take shoes for granted, but in many societies shoes are a luxury, and have symbolic significance. The Shulchan Aruch, the great Jewish code of law, lays out the order of how shoes are to be put on and taken off. This is not just purposeless legal minutiae. Rather, it is a way of reminding us, every time we put our shoes on or take them off, just how blessed we are. An act as simple as putting our shoes on can remind us of human and animal suffering, inspire us toward humility, help us to transition to a more personal space, and remind us of our countless blessings.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.