Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemot 5762/ January 5, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Shemot 5762/ January 5, 2002

Barefoot in the Synagogue

Prof. Eliezer Bashan
Department of Jewish History

When G-d was revealed to Moses at the burning bush, He called out to him, "Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground" (Ex. 3:5). A similar thing, with the omission of the last word "ground" was said to Joshua by the captain of the Lord's host (Josh. 5:15).

Removing sandals and going barefoot denotes various things in Scripture. It appears as an expression of sorrow and grieving: "David meanwhile went up... weeping as he went; his head was covered and he walked barefoot" (II Sam. 15:30). Similarly, we read in Jeremiah 2:25: "Save your foot from going bare, and your throat from thirst." Sometimes it appears along with removal of clothes, so regarding the war against Assyria, the Lord said to Isaiah: " 'Go, untie the sackcloth from your loins and take your sandals off your feet,' which he had done, going naked and barefoot... so shall the king of Assyria drive off the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Nubia, young and old, naked and barefoot..." (Isaiah 20:2-4). Thus we see that taking off sandals denotes an encounter with the sacred, mourning, and going off into exile.

Did Moses' action at the burning bush provide a precedent in subsequent generations to remove the sandals as a sign of respect for a sacred place? Mishna Berakhot (9.5) instructs us as follows: "One may not enter the Holy Mount of the Temple with one's staff, or with one's shoes on or with one's money belt." Since a synagogue is considered a "minor Temple," the question arises whether the above rule applies also to synagogues. This is discussed in Tractate Berakhot (63a), and Rabba is of the opinion that the ways of showing respect in the synagogue are deduced from the practice in the home, not the Temple: "Just as in a private person's home one does not want it to serve as a thoroughfare for strangers, but one does not mind spitting within the home or wearing footwear, so too, the synagogue must not be used as a thoroughfare, but spitting and footwear are permitted."

Indeed, Maimonides ruled that a person may enter the synagogue with one's staff, shoes, and money belt. Maimonides' ruling in Hilkhot Tefillah 11.10 follows the practice in Babylonia, but it was customary in the land of Israel to remove one's shoes before entering a synagogue. The Jerusalem Talmud, Bava Metzia 2, 9, tells the following story: "Judah b. Rabbi went into a synagogue and left his sandals outside, and they were stolen. He said, 'Had I not gone into the synagogue, my sandals would not have been stolen.'" The fact that well-preserved mosaic floors of synagogues from the Byzantine period have survived in Israel is further evidence that those who prayed there walked barefoot.

Not only in Israel but also in certain places in the Diaspora it was customary to remove one's shoes before entering a synagogue. This was the practice, for example, among the Jews of Yemen.[1]
A halakhic discussion of this question is found in a responsum by Rashbash (Rabbi Solomon b. Simeon b. Tzemah Duran, Algeria, d. 1467) to a dayan in Bejaia, a city in eastern Algeria:

You wrote concerning a congregation that wished to reach consensus that one should not enter the synagogue wearing shoes, due to the contempt in which the Ishmaelites (Moslems) held them. Moreover, there is another synagogue in the very same city in which it is the custom not to enter wearing shoes. A few individuals came forward challenging this idea, arguing that Maimonides permitted entering a synagogue in shoes; and now you ask my opinion on the subject.

Some background information will help us better understand the issue. The responsum dates to the period when Jews were emigrating from Spain to Algeria in the wake of the decrees of 1391. There they came in contact with a Jewish community of long standing that had been living among the Moslems for many generations. The practice of the Algerian Jews was to remove their shoes before entering the synagogue, just as the Moslems removed their shoes before entering a mosque.

The Jews of Spain, who lived in the midst of a Christian society where it was not customary to remove one's shoes before entering a church, established a synagogue in Algeria according to their own traditions. When the local Moslems with whom they came into contact found out that these Jews were entering their synagogue without removing their shoes, they held them in contempt. As a result an initiative was taken to reach agreement that henceforth no one would enter the synagogue wearing shoes. However there were some people who objected, basing their position on the stand taken by Maimonides, who, even though he was familiar with Moslem practices, ruled that one may enter a synagogue wearing shoes. The disagreement within the congregation made it necessary to ask the opinion of this rabbi, who himself came from Spain.

In a lengthy and carefully substantiated responsum he ruled that respect is not something absolute, rather it is dependent on social norms. He presented various approaches to the way respect is shown to a venerable person or a holy place, depending on the cultural environment, and analyzed the difference between what is considered respectful in the Christian culture or Europe as opposed to the Moslem world. We cite representative passages from his responsum:

Response: It is well known that a synagogue deserves to be glorified, exalted and respected, keeping any sign of contempt away from it. Respect, however, is anything that people consider as such, ... true respect or contempt are according to the way people think and the mores of the place. For example, in the lands of the Christians, where it is not considered a sign of contempt to enter in one's shoes, or even to appear in shoes before the monarch, if a person enters a synagogue in one of their cities wearing shoes that does not show contempt. But in these lands [Moslem countries], where it is a sign of contempt to come before dignitaries, not to mention before the king, wearing shoes, in their cities one must not enter a synagogue wearing shoes, since if one does not do so before a king of flesh and blood, all the more so before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Further on he discusses what is considered acceptable in Moslem countries, where people remove their shoes and leave them at the door even before entering their own homes so as not to dirty them. He contrasts this with the practice in Europe, where people wear their shoes in the house, taking them off only before going to bed.

Considering the fact that in Christian countries people wear their shoes until they get into bed, one is permitted to enter a synagogue in a Christian city in one's shoes, but in countries where care is taken [not] to enter the home in shoes, ... it is unfitting to sully the house of our Lord... Thus, in the land of Edom [the Christian world], where one does not stand before important people except in footwear, it is forbidden to stand in the house of prayer barefoot. In the land of Ishmael [the Moslem world], where it is customary to stand before dignitaries barefoot, it is permitted [to remove one's shoes]. The law in this regard varies according to the local custom of what is considered a sign of contempt or of respect, ... according to the place and its practices, ... it all depends on complying with the custom of the place.

The rabbi concludes, "Therefore it is a good thing which they sought to do, to avoid being held in contempt by the nation that thought us contemptuous." In other words, he encouraged that community to decide that everyone should remove their shoes before entering the synagogue (Resp. Rashbash, Leghorn 1742, par. 285). The upshot of this teshuva is that certain religious practices depend on the cultural environment.

An interesting aside is that one of the decrees passed against the Jews of Morocco, especially in inland cities, and remaining in force until 1912, was that they had to remove their shoes when they left the mullah [Jewish Quarter] and entered the Moslem city. The Jews came to terms with this decree, notwithstanding the discomfort it caused them in the cold of winter and heat of summer. The Jewish organizations in Europe, which from 1860 on were the political and economic rear guard of Moroccan Jewry, applied political pressure on the Sultans to annul this order, but to no avail. A Moslem wazir answered a British diplomat that removing one's shoes is a sign of respect, just like taking off one's hat in Europe, and that abrogating the decree was likely to arouse Moslem extremists and result in the government being accused of giving in to foreign dictates, thus hurting Moslem pride.

[1] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Kafih ed., Jerusalem 1985. With respect to the above-mentioned halakhah, Rabbi Kafih notes what was the practice in Israel and Yemen. I am indebted to Dr. Aharon Gimani for calling my attention to this source.