In the Torah portion of Shemot, we read that when Moshe Rabeinu approached the burning bush, G-d said to him, “Do not draw near here. Take your shoes off your feet because the place upon which you stand is holy ground.”
The commentaries offer various explanations as to why it was necessary for Moshe to remove his shoes before approaching the holy ground of the burning bush, which was on Mount Sinai.
No Shoes in a Holy Place
- The Midrash says that it is forbidden to wear shoes [out of respect – since they can be dirty] wherever the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is revealed. We find this concerning Yehoshua, who was told by the angel while camped outside of Jericho, “Remove your shoe from your foot, for the place upon which you stand is holy.” Similarly, the Kohanim in the Bait Hamikdash went barefoot. The Levites, too, would walk barefoot while carrying the holy ark in the desert.
- Based on the above, another Midrash says that, if when entering a holy space, one must remove his shoes, which is a relatively minor bodily need, how much more so, when one wishes to partake in holy endeavors, one must remove negative thoughts and attitudes.
- An additional point that can be derived from this is that when a person comes to a holy place he needs to sanctify himself exceedingly. The holier the place one is in, the more one must elevate oneself.
Complete Separation from Physical Desires
- Rabbeinu Bachaye writes that the shoes which clothe a person’s feet represent a person’s corporality that clings to his body. G-d was alluding to Moshe that to be deserving of prophecy, he was going to have to shed his connection to corporality. Along the same line, the Kli Yakar points out that Moshe was told to remove both of his shoes. This symbolizes that both his intellect needed to be separated from all connections to corporality and his physical body too was to be elevated and purified. The elevation of Moshe’s body enabled him to reach the level of an angel and not eat for 40 days and 40 nights while on Mount Sinai and to have rays of light emanating from his face (upon descending from the mountain). Whereas Yehoshua, who was not quite on the level of Moshe, was instructed to remove only one shoe, signifying that his intellect was to be elevated from any connection to corporality. His physical body, however, would never reach the level of sanctity that Moshe Rabeinu achieved.
- In addition, Rabbeinu Bachaye says that the Hebrew word שַׁל- Shal (remove) – is an acronym for the words shachor שחור(black) and lavan לבן (white) and it alludes to the holiness of the spot where G-d was going to give the Torah, which was written with black fire on white fire.
An Allusion to the Celibacy of Moshe
- According to the Zohar, the inner meaning of G-d’s instruction to Moshe to remove his shoes was that he should separate from his wife. We find that the removal of a shoe can mean a separation between a man and his (potential) wife such as occurs during the Chalitzah ceremony when the childless widow removes the shoe of her brother-in-law to affect a separation between them and to indicate that they are not getting married. The reason that Moshe was instructed to separate from his wife was that Moshe’s level of prophecy was so great that he was able to prophesize at any time and thus he needed to be spiritually ready to do so at any moment. Other prophets, however, could only prophesize after certain preparations. For those prophets, it was sufficient for them to separate from their spouses when they were preparing for prophecy. Therefore, the angel instructed Yehoshua to remove only one shoe, alluding to the fact that he would only need to separate from his wife at certain times.
- The Zohar also says that when Moshe was commanded to remove his shoes, i.e., to separate from his wife, the mountain trembled, and the archangel Michael exclaimed to G-d, “Do you wish to destroy man (by forbidding procreation)? After all, a blessing is only found in a place where there is unity between a man and a woman, as the verse says, “He created them as male and female, and He blessed them.”G-d explained that Moshe had already fulfilled the mitzvah of having children and that he was now being asked to wed (i.e., cleave to) the Shechinah (Divine Presence).
Shoes and the Sin of the Tree of Knowledge
- Rav Moshe Chagiz writes that the reason we generally wear shoes is to separate our feet from the ground which was cursed by G-d after the first sin of Adam and Eve. A place where the Shechinah rests, however, contains only blessing and no curse, and thus it is appropriate for one to not wear shoes there. This is why G-d instructed Moshe to remove his shoes as he was standing on holy ground. Rav Chagiz goes on to praise the custom in certain countries where the Jewish people remove their shoes before entering a shul. He writes that although the Arabs (Muslims) also remove their shoes before prayer, they learned this custom from us and not vice versa.
The rest of this article will discuss some of the places and situations when shoes must be removed. (The laws of not wearing shoes on Yom Kippur, on Tisha Be’av, when in mourning, G-d forbid, and for the Kohanim when reciting the priestly blessing, are beyond the scope of this article.)
In the Bait HaMikdash
As mentioned above, it was forbidden to wear shoes in the Bait HaMikdash. This included the entire Temple Mount (Har HaBayit). It was permissible, however, to wear socks or, other non-leather footwear. (This does not apply to the Kohanim who, while doing the service in the Bait HaMikdash, had to be completely barefoot. See above.) This can be derived from a story recounted in Megilat Ta’anit (chapter 3) that, Gevihah ben Pesisa (a sage who was a hunchback) escorted Alexander the Great into the Bait HaMikdash. When they reached the Temple Mount, Gevihah asked Alexander to remove his shoes, and he provided him with golden socks, each of them containing a precious stone. Gevihah told Alexander that he should wear them so he not slip on the smooth (stone) floor of the Temple Mount.
When Carrying a Coffin
The Jerusalem Talmud says
that those carrying a coffin during a funeral procession may not wear sandals lest the straps of one of the sandals break and thus delay the funeral. Thus, the Shulchan Aruch rules that if there is a designated group of people who carry the coffin, they may not wear sandals.
Some say that this rule only applies to sandals with straps that may break. Since this does not apply to ordinary shoes, this law is no longer relevant even in a place that has a group of designated people to carry the coffin. In fact, they may even wear sandals if there are other people who can replace him and continue carrying the coffin immediately.
Clean Shoes in Shul
Rav Yehudah HaChasid writes
that before entering a shul, one must check one’s shoes to see that they are clean of excrement as King Solomon said, “Guard your feet when you go to the house of G-d.”
When Visiting the Graves of Tzadikkim
It is customary in some communities to remove one’s (leather) shoes when visiting the graves of tzaddikim (righteous people).
This is based on the concept that the resting place of the tzadikkim is a holy and pure place where prayers can be more easily accepted.
In fact, according to early sources, the Shechina rests in these places.
It is therefore somewhat similar to the Bait HaMikdash where it was forbidden to wear shoes. In addition, as explained above, the reason we generally wear shoes is because the ground was cursed, whereas the holy ground of the Bait Haikdash was not cursed but blessed, Similarly, since the tzaddikim completely purified their bodies, the ground in which they are buried becomes sanctified. It is therefore unnecessary (and inappropriate) to wear shoes in these areas.
May Hashem accept all of the prayers of the Jewish people, wherever they may be!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom from Heichal HaBaal Shem Tov in Mezhibuzh, Ukraine, resting place of the Baal Shem Tov.
(I am on my way to Haditch, the resting place of the Alter Rebbe for Shabbos and his Yohrtzeit, on the 24th of Teves.)
Shemot Rabbah 2:6, cited in Ramban on the verse.
. But see below that Yehoshua was only instructed to remove one shoe.
See Hilchot Klei HaMishkan, 7:14
and Hilchot Bi’at HaMishkan, 5:17
. In addition, even the Levites and Israelites who entered the Temple Mount needed to be barefoot. See Berachot 62b.
An additional reason as to why the Kohanim serving in the Bait HaMikdash had to be barefoot is that the Kohanim were only allowed to wear the four garments specified by the Torah (or eight for the Kohen Gadol). Since shoes (or socks) were not one of these, if a Kohen were to wear them while doing the service in the Bait HaMikdash, that service would be invalid since the shoes or socks would be a Chatzitzah (interposition) between his feet and the floor. See Zevachim, 24a.
It is possible that when the Midrash attributes the fact that the Kohanim could not wear shoes in the Bait HaMikdash to the presence of the Shechinah, it means to explain why it is that shoes were not included (by G-d) as one of the clothing of the Kohanim in the first place.
Midrash HaGadol, cited in Torah Shleimah on the verse, end of note 89.
Shela, vol. 3, Torah Shebichtav, Parshat Shemot, ot 28
See also Kli Yakar on the verse
Zohar Chadash, end of Parshat Ki Tetzei
Vol. 3, Parshat Naso, 148a
The opinion of the Zohar that Moshe separated from his wife after the story of the burning bush differs slightly from the opinion of the Talmud (Shabbat 87a) which seems to say that Moshe did not separate from his wife until after the giving of the Torah. See the Mechilta (Shemot 18:) where Rabbi Yehoshua says that Moshe had actually divorced his wife when he sent her back to her father’s home before the Exodus. He may be following the Zohar’s view that Moshe had already been commanded to separate from his wife. As such, he divorced Tziporrah. (Although Yitro brought her back to him, they had only a platonic relationship. See Rashi on Numbers, 12:1
Mishnat Chachamim, ot 121. See also, Asarah Ma’amarot by Rame of Pano, Mamar Em Kol Chai section 3, Siman 22
According to Megilat Ta’anit, when they reached the Holy of Holies, Gevihah explained to Alexander that they were not allowed to enter. When Alexander insisted, a snake came and bit him. (I have not seen this in other sources. A.C.) See Miluim 16 in Torah Shleimah on Parshat Shemot.
Brachot, 3:1 (24a) and Nazir, 7:1 (34a)
Shach in Nekudat HaKessef on Taz 1
Sefer Chassidim, 822
Magen Avot; Various Customs Relating to Visiting Graves (manuscript) by Rav Efrayim HaLevi Bilitzer (Rav of Etlon, Transylvania, who was murdered by the Nazis, yemach shemam, in 1944), 7:21
See Bait Elokim by the Mabit, chapter 5
See Derashot HaRan, Derush 8
Sefer Shemesh UMagen by Rabbi Chaviv Chaim David Stahn, Jerusalem, 1891. In the end of the sefer, in a section Hi Matzevet Kevurat Rachel. Cited by Rav Mordechai Gross in his Sefer Admat Kodesh (Benei Berak, 2014), page 181
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom