Shabbos Shoes to Greet Moshiach

Kehillas Bais Yehudah Tzvi, Cedarhurst

Although this is not technically a halacha column, we must keep in mind that everything a Jew does is ultimately driven by halacha. First we must know what to do; later we can sometimes delve into the depth or meaning of what we are or are not permitted to do. This follows the ancient pattern of naaseh venishmah – first act; then later you will begin to understand.

Some seforim teach that this is also the reason we put tefillin on our arm and then on our head, symbolizing action before intellect. This leads us to note a somewhat surprising phenomenon in Klal Yisroel that I believe bears analysis so that we can appreciate the profound meaning of a simple event in our family lives: shopping for shoes.

The Rambam (Hilchos Ishus 13:1) rules that one should purchase new shoes for the members of his family for Yom Tov. On the other hand, poskim (see, for instance, Yerushalmi Shabbos 6:2; Tzitz Eliezer 7:2:5 and 14:34:6; Yechaveh Daas 5:23) rule that there is no obligation to change one’s shoes for Shabbos. This is despite the fact that many poskim (Mogein Avrohom 262:2; Gra, Maaseh Rav, No. 147) suggest that one should change all his garments for Shabbos. To make matters more complicated, it seems to me that the custom today is to buy “Shabbos shichelech” (shoes) for even very young children. What exactly is going on here?

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach, 87:14), explained why there is no obligation to have a special set of shoes for Shabbos. He teaches us that the importance of wearing Shabbos clothing is that they represent the triumph of daas – the power of the human intellect – over all other bodily inclinations. The outward representation of this phenomenon is that only man, amongst all the creatures, stands erect with his head towering above the rest of his body. The Shabbos clothing, which are bigdei kavod, garments of honor, reflect this paramount preference for a life guided by the brain and not the predilections of the heart. This distinction between man and beast begins in the human body with the legs. The heel and the foot itself do not share in this disparity, since for both man and animal, the feet remain firmly rooted to the ground. For this reason, poskim rule that one need not change his shoes for Shabbos, since they are not part of the Shabbos havdalah between kodesh and chol and indeed man and beast.

Rav Zev Hoberman zt”l (Ze’ev Yitrof, Shabbos, volume I, chapter 51) adds an interesting component. He cites the Maharal (Gur Aryeh, Devorim 7:4), who explains that “although all clothing bring honor to their wearers, shoes are a g’nai – menial and inferior garment – since in all holy places we must remove our shoes. Their purpose is therefore not as noble as other raiment, but simply to prevent harm and pain.”

Rav Hoberman references the Gemara (Brachos 10b) that says that we keep our feet together during Shemoneh Esrei, like the angels, because, as the Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Ha’avodah, chapter 6) explains, “the placing of the feet together represents man’s inability to function without the will of Hashem, just as a malach can make no move without G-d. Man, on the other hand, is always in danger of deviating from his Maker as soon as he moves. His free will creates the potential for actions that are contrary to the will of the Creator.” Shoes thus apparently represent what is potentially worst in man and therefore have no place in the “clothing of honor” associated with Shabbos and are removed whenever man finds himself on holy ground, such as Moshe Rabbeinu at the burning bush and the kohanim daily in the Bais Hamikdosh. In all these places, shoes are unnecessary and actually antithetical, because the holiness there ensures that man will not wander from his purpose and sacred vocation.

We must now examine why the Rambam ruled that one should purchase shoes for Yom Tov. A number of years ago, when the dictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, was summarily overthrown, his wife Imelda became an object of ridicule for her outrageous collection of shoes. “I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes,” she sweetly informed the world, “I [only] had one thousand and sixty.”

Some of the most poignant memorials to Churban Europa are the seemingly endless piles of shoes. These silent indictments of human cruelty can be seen in Holocaust museums around the world and even at their original site of offense, the horrific concentration camps. On the banks of the Danube River, in Budapest, where innocent Jews were ordered to take off their shoes before being shot by the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross militia, a memorial of just a few ossified shoes speaks louder than a thousand speeches. But one must wonder why the shoe is such a powerful symbol of lost humanity. What has always driven the human preoccupation with what seems to be a simple item to protect the feet?

To be sure, entire tracts and long articles have been written on this subject from the psychological, historical and sociological perspectives. Let us, however, look at the Torah view of this elusive matter.

Perhaps it would be best to begin with the illuminating words of the Sefas Emes (Pesach 5637, page 56). He quotes the posuk, “Ma yafu pe’amayich bane’alim bas nadiv – O’ how beautiful were your footsteps when shod in pilgrim’s sandals” (Shir Hashirim 7:2). The Gemara (Sukkah 49b) interprets this as referring to the beauty of the people of Klal Yisroel when they went up to visit the Bais Hamikdosh on Yom Tov. The Sefas Emes eloquently points out that, far from a burden, these journeys were a gift from G-d, for they unified the people and afforded them the incredible privilege of perceiving Hashem on a very high level.

However, the Sefas Emes also notes that Chazal apply these words to the closing moments of the two great Yomim Tovim of Sukkos and Pesach. Those precious final hours, often spent together in Torah and song, which we refer to as ne’ilas hachag, are related linguistically to the shoes, the naalayim. What is this cryptic connection? The Sefas Emes teaches that “just as the shoe guards the foot, so does Hashem spread over us the protective sukkas shalom on these Yomim Tovim to save us from the dangerous admixtures that corrupt our lower world. The Yomim Tovim protect us spiritually just as the shoes shelter our feet from the mud and other earthly elements beneath man.”

We now know that our shoes represent some kind of protection from the spiritually toxic and injurious elements of the world. But why the feet and what can we learn from this metaphor?

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 4:18) rules that “one who touches his shoes must wash his hands.” Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l (Yabia Omer 5:1:4, page 2) quotes from the Chesed L’Avrohom that the “reason we should not walk barefoot is because the primordial serpent was given the dust of the earth as his food, which therefore reeks of his noxiousness. This is the secret of shoes. We wear them to dissociate ourselves from the defilement of the serpent.” Rav Ovadiah adds (in the name of Rav Chaim Palagi) that for this reason, Sefardim have the custom never to go completely barefoot, even on Tisha B’Av. Rav Avrohom Palagi cites a mnemonic for remembering this teaching of his father: naal (shoe) is an acronym for nochosh (snake), afar (dust), lachmo (is his bread).

The Degel Machaneh Efraim, based upon a concept he learned from his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, teaches that “the removal of the shoes symbolizes the separation of detrimental thoughts from lofty ones.” The simple act of taking off one’s shoes represents the encounter of the mortal with the divine and affords us the opportunity to sanctify everything, literally from head to toe.

The Malbim (Rus 3:4) grandly expands this concept to the very essence of our human bifurcated condition. He explains that the “body is essentially the shoe of the soul… The soul could not exist in the spiritually dangerous wasteland that is the earth below without the protection of the physical body.” He quotes the mekubalim that this is also the esoteric meaning behind the removal of the shoes in the rite of chalitzah. By refusing to marry his brother’s childless widow (yibum), he is unwilling to grant the deceased a second pair of shoes – that is, the child who would embody his soul and enable it to walk safely through this world. He must symbolically have his own shoe removed.

Those new shoes for Yom Tov may hurt a bit at first. But then their true shine comes through, for they help each new Yom Tov raise us far above this mundane world. The shoe is a wonderful mirror image of man’s spiritual bipolarity. When encountering the wantonness of the world, the shoe is our protection. When we encounter propitious moments for spiritual blessings and attainments, the shoes are removed, for then they are a barrier. The surprise is that sometimes tragedy and sadness can also be an occasion for that painful blessing. Mourning for the individual, Tisha B’Av for the nation, can be times of profound growth and inspiration. Even the end of a Yom Tov can be a transitional moment to apply all the greatness of the Yom Tov to the mundane days ahead. Each move forward can be a step up to more kedusha and a chance to earn more sechar halichah – credit for each and every stage – on the long, extraordinary road ahead.

The story is told of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l, who was once walking with his with his talmidim. Uncharacteristically, he stopped in front of a shoe store where tiny baby shoes were drying in the sun. First he appeared deep in thought, but then he burst into a gigantic smile and moved on. “Rebbe,” the talmidim inquired, “you never waste time like this. What were you thinking?” The great rosh yeshiva’s face lit up again and he responded, “There is a mitzvah to celebrate and commiserate with others. I was imagining the incredible joy of fathers putting these shoes on their children for the first time. I cannot even fathom the happiness of the mothers.”

Perhaps Rav Chaim was also imagining the intense spiritual experience of those pure and holy souls as they embark upon their first Derech Hashem, Orchos Tzaddikim and Mesilas Yeshorim as well.

We may suggest that this, too, is the difference between Shabbos and Yom Tov regarding shoes. The Rambam holds that on Yom Tov our feet can become part of the systematic elevation of every part of our body to serve Hashem in kedusha. Shabbos, on the other hand, represents a time above and beyond sin (see Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach 74:14), so we do not need and shouldn’t even acknowledge our lower instincts, thus not even changing our shoes. It may be that in the innate wisdom of Klal Yisroel (“im einom nevi’im, bnei nevi’im heim – if they are not prophets, they are the children of prophets” – Pesachim 66a), in view of the terrifying spiritual dangers facing the nation, the custom has arisen to change even our shoes for Shabbos to access every bit of the incredible ruchniyus that Shabbos has to offer us. May we soon walk proudly in our shiny shoes to greet Moshiach tzidkeinu bimeheirah beyomeinu.