One goes without shoes to better encounter sorrow. By “better” I mean both more deeply and more wisely. On the wheel of ascetic practices, it sits directly opposite self-flagellation, the object of which is the blunting of pity even towards oneself. But forgoing shoes, like forgoing food and drink, provokes a ginger compassion. One must pick one's path carefully for the least harm, and so one enters into relationship with the ordinary detritus of the street. Power is ceded to the pavement cracks, the gravel, the grass, such that one must use a slower step and a downward eye to request safe passage. Vulnerability is thus experienced as a demand for care. This is a critical insight, one which deserves internalisation whenever our calender draws our attention to human sorrow, in particular on Yom Kipur and Tisha BeAv.
But are shoes prohibited on those days, or only leather shoes? Although the Mishnah (Yoma 8:1) does not specify any kind of material, suggesting an expansive prohibition, Tur and Shulḥan Arukh make an explicit distinction:
אסור לנעול מנעל או סנדל של עור, אפילו קב הקיטע וכיוצא בו, אפילו של עץ ומחופה עור – אסור. אבל של גמי, או של קש, או של בגד, או של שאר מינים – מותר אפילו לצאת בהם לרשות הרבים.It is forbidden to wear shoes or sandals of leather, even the prosthetic of an amputee and the like; even wood overlayed with leather is forbidden. But [footwear made from] bullrushes, or straw, or cloth, or any other type of material are permitted, even for use in public. (OḤ 614:2)
This listing of “bullrushes, straw, or cloth” comes from the example of Amoraim:
עמד רבי יצחק בר נחמני על רגליו ואמר אני ראיתי את רבי יהושע בן לוי שיצא בסנדל של שעם ביוה"כ ואמינא ליה בתענית צבור מאי א"ל לא שנא אמר רבה בר בר חנה אני ראיתי את רבי אלעזר דמן ננוה שיצא בסנדל של שעם בתענית צבור ואמינא ליה ביום הכפורים מאי א"ל לא שנא רב יהודה נפיק בדהיטני אביי נפיק בדהוצי רבא נפיק <בדיבלי> [בדיקולי] רבה בר רב הונא כריך סודרא אכרעיה ונפיקR. Yitsḥaq bar Naḥmani stood on his feet and said, “I saw that R. Yehoshua ben Lewi went out with sandals of bamboo on Yom Kipur, and I asked him, 'What is the law on a public fast?' He said to me, 'No different.'” Rabah bar bar Ḥana said, “I saw that R. Eleazar from Nineweh went out with sandals of bamboo on a public fast, and I said to him, 'What is the law on Yom Kipur?' He said to me, 'No different.'” R. Yehudhah went out in reeds. Rava went out in palm leaves. Rabah bar Rav Hunah wrapped scarves on his feet and went out. (Yoma 78a-b)
A modern reader immediately intuits what these materials have in common, and, critically, how every one of them differs from a sneaker. Rava understood it too when he articulated why something wooden overlayed with leather can be a “shoe” but something cloth cannot: האי מגין והאי לא מגין -- “One protects, and one does not protect” (Yevamoth 103a). Ramba”m tunes this language even more finely:
אסור לנעול מנעל וסנדל אפילו ברגלו אחת. ומותר לצאת בסנדל של שעם ושל גמי וכיוצא בהן. וכורך אדם בגד על רגליו ויוצא בו שהרי קושי הארץ מגיע לרגליו ומרגיש שהוא יחףIt is forbidden to put on shoes and sandals, even on one foot. And it is permitted to go out in sandals of bamboo or bullrushes and the like. And one may wrap cloth on one's feet and go out with it, since indeed the hardness of the ground comes through to the feet, and one feels as if one is barefoot. (Hilkhoth Shevithath Asor 3:7)
It is quite possible that the Tur and Shulḥan Arukh in fact agree with these more conservative statements, and that their apparent permissiveness is an artifact of style: in both Yevamoth and Ramba”m, the key restrictive quality (protectiveness) comes out only to answer the question of why, a question that the Tur and Shulḥan Arukh do not raise. No pressure existed for any of these authorities to describe a forbidden non-leather counterexample, since sturdy, wearable non-leather shoes were not worn in their societies. Although a wooden “shoe” might seem to be described in Shabbath and Yevamoth, the actual object under discussion is a prosthetic for someone with a disfigured or partially amputated leg (a person known as a qitea). It was not something which an able person would choose to wear. The entire discussion in Shabbath hinges on the likelihood of the qitea taking off their wooden “shoe.” This temptation existed despite the fact that it was required for the qitea to walk, indicating that it was uncomfortable and perhaps painful. Such an object is far from Dutch-style klompen carved for the comfort of the wearer, and so conversations in Sha”s about the shoe-ness or non-shoeness of the qitea's prosthetic should be separated from considerations of fast-day prohibitions (as noted by Rabeinu Tam on Shabbath 65b, “HaQitea,” seeming to follow the statement of Rava on Yoma 78b).
Let us now return to this expression of Ramba”m: “the hardness of the earth comes through to the feet.” Here he cuts through to the productive essence of the prohibition against shoes, but the insight is older than him, indeed older than Rava. Its first and most complex phrasing is found at the revelation of the burning bush:
וירא יהוה, כי סר לראות; ויקרא אליו אלהים מתוך הסנה, ויאמר משה משה--ויאמר הנני. ויאמר, אל-תקרב הלם; של-נעליך, מעל רגליך--כי המקום אשר אתה עומד עליו, אדמת-קדש הוא.When God saw that he had turned to see, God called to him from within the bush, saying “Mosheh, Mosheh.” He said, “Here I am.” [God] said, “Come no closer. Remove your shoes from your feet, because the place on which you are standing is sacred earth.” (Shemoth 3:4-5)
How is “sacred earth” an explanation for this command? We might guess that shoe-wearing in holy places was an obvious act of disrespect, and summon dozens of cross-cultural tidbits to support our hypothesis, but the rabbis refute it directly when they say that keeping one's shoes on is not דרך בזיון – “a usual way of showing disrespect” (Berakhoth 62b). In a similar vein, commentator Or HaḤayim (ad loc, “אל תקרב”) makes a careful distinction: “Remove your shoes” is not expressing a negative commandment, i.e. a ban on shoes, but a positive one, i.e. the demand for activity which cultivates כבוד, honour. How so? R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch teases out the mechanism of this gesture, translating physical motion into a language of service:
“Instead of attempting to understand a phenomenon that is beyond your ken, contemplate the lofty destiny of the ground on which you are already standing and devote yourself to it with all your heart.” Removal of one's shoes expresses total commitment to the significance of a given place... Similarly, the כהנים [kohanim] in the מקדש [Sanctuary] were obligated to serve barefoot... The Sanctuary is not an outwardly imperssive, gaudy display. The impression it makes is an inner impression, on the personality. If one wishes to act in the service of the Sanctuary, one must attach oneself to it and be sanctified by it. (Hirsch, note 5 to Shemoth 3:5)
This is a sharp observation, as the revelation at the burning bush is first and foremost the revelation of a responsibility which is also responsiveness. God's choice of a thorn bush, as opposed to another species of tree, is a reminder of the sorrow of the other Jews whom Mosheh has left behind, and a denial that experience of the divine can be separated from awareness of human suffering (Rash”i to Shemoth 3:2, מתוך הסנה).
So it is with the fast days: an encounter with God is inseparable from an encounter with the pain of others. To command that the people afflict themselves is to command responsiveness; even on an etymological level, עינוי, affliction, shares a root with מענה, response (ע-נ-ה). Going without shoes is an intuitive part of this mechanism. There is nothing mystical in R. Hirsch's association of barefootedness with openness to “inner impression”: the emotional and social effects blossom from the physical surrender of one's person to the solidity of place. This is difficult indeed to accomplish with a factory-made (indeed, unjustly made, although this is a subject to grave to cover here) synthetic shoe whose sole was explicitly designed for maximum impenetrability. In The Relation of Dress To Art (a piece worth reading in its entirety; let me not reduce his thought here to a quip), Oscar Wilde wrote, “A nation arrayed in stove-pipe hats, and dress improvers, might have built the Pantechnicon, possibly, but the Parthenon, never.” A congregation arrayed in unyielding sneakers is unnecessarily impaired in their achievement of the radical openness so necessary for repentance.