Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemot 5767/ January 13, 2007

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Shoeless in the Sanctuary

 

Dr. Yoel Shiloh

 

Ashkelon College

 

"And He said, do not come closer.   Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground" (Ex. 3:5).   Moses, arriving at the site of the burning bush, was immediately commanded to remove his shoes from his feet, because he was standing on holy ground.  From this episode the Sages deduced that one is required to remove shoes in holy places, and also to take heed of other matters as well.

In this vein, the Mishnah (Berakhot 9, 5) says:

A person should not enter the Temple Mount with his staff, or sandal, or wallet, or with the dust upon his feet; nor should he make it into a short by-path; still less may he spit there.

The prohibition against wearing shoes on the Temple Mount is deduced from this week's reading: [1]

It is taught:  a person may not enter the Temple Mount with the staff in his hand, nor with the shoes on his feet, nor with money tied in his belt, nor with his moneybag hanging behind him; nor may he make it into a thoroughfare, and the prohibition against spitting follows by deduction from the hard case to the easy one (kal vahomer), from the prohibition against wearing shoes.   Since wearing shoes is not a sign of disrespect, yet nevertheless the Torah commanded, "remove your shoes from your feet," spitting, which is a sign of disrespect, all the more so is it prohibited.

The Talmud clarifies that wearing shoes is not considered disrespectful (derekh bizzayon) in the same way as spitting. Rather, removing shoes is a sign of respect.

Respect for the Temple

The duty to behave properly in holy places is part of the commandment to venerate the Temple:   "You shall keep my Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary:  I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:30), from which the Sages derived the mishnah cited above. [2]   Respectful behavior is also part of the commandment pertaining to the sanctity of the Israelite encampment:   "Since the Lord your G-d moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you" (Deut. 23:15), and this too provided the Sages another basis for the mishnah above. [3]  The prohibition against entering the Temple Mount with footwear applies not only to the time when the Temple was standing, but also to the Temple Mount after the Temple's destruction. [4]

Other instances can be cited of prohibitions against wearing shoes in holy places, as well as other rules of dress and behavior in places that command respect.  For example, when Joshua met the angel:  "The captain of the Lord's host answered Joshua:   'Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.'  And Joshua did so" (Josh. 5:15).   It is said of Mordecai that he came only as far as the king's gate, "for one could not enter the palace gate wearing sackcloth" (Esther 4:2).  Rabbi Jose ben Yehudah said, "If to show respect for a king of flesh and blood one may not do so, all the more so to show respect for the King of Kings!" [5]

The priests, when they deliver the priestly blessing, are forbidden to wear shoes, not only in the Temple but anywhere they give the blessing.  This proscription is one of the rulings enacted by Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai [6] after the destruction of the Temple and in commemoration of the Temple.   Apparently this ruling commemorates the sacred worship in the Temple, at which the priests officiated barefoot.  However, in the Sages offer two other reasons for this regulation: [7]

Rabbi Isaac said:  One should always be in awe of the public, for the priests face the people and have their backs towards the Divine Presence…   The Rabbis said, we learn that one must be in awe of the public from here--from the fact that the priests are not allowed to ascend to bless the people wearing footwear, and this is one of nine regulations instituted by Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai.   What was the reason for it?   It is a prohibition due to the respect owed to the public.  Rav Ashi said:   No; the reason is lest a strap of his sandal tear and he leave to tie it, and that might make the people say that he is the son of a divorcee or a woman who has performed halizah [i.e., unfit to deliver  the priestly blessing].

Again we see that removing shoes is a sign of respect. The first reason suggested by the Sages was to show respect for the public, but the Talmudic discussion finally accepts the second reason which says the ruling is due to the respect owed the priests to themselves; a mishap with their sandals might prevent one of the priests from giving the blessing and this might, Heaven forefend, hurt his reputation.

Shoes in the Synagogue

The synagogue is considered a miniature temple, and prayer in the synagogue was instituted as a substitute for the ritual in the Temple which had been destroyed; therefore it could be expected that the prohibition against wearing footwear would apply in the synagogue, as well; however, this is not the case.  Maimonides states explicitly: [8]

Someone who enters [the synagogue] to pray or to read [the Torah] may leave by the doorway on the opposite side in order to shorten his way; and a person may enter the synagogue with his staff, his shoes, and his wallet, and with dust on his feet; and if he needs to spit, he may spit in the synagogue.

Nor do the rules of behavior in the synagogue that are listed in the Shulhan Arukh [9] specify a prohibition against wearing shoes.   Quite the contrary, the Sages note explicitly that one is allowed to wear shoes in the synagogue, in contrast to the proscription against wearing them on the Temple Mount. [10]

It is interesting to note that certain communities had a tradition forbidding one to enter the synagogue in shoes due to the sanctity of the place.  In the ancient Al-Griba synagogue in Jerba, Tunisia, the area close to the ark was known as the Holy of Holies, and wearing footwear there was forbidden. [11]

Maharitz [12] (Rabbi Yomtov Zahalon of Safed, 1559-c.1638) tells of a controversy that erupted, apparently in the city of Safed, between a certain woman and one of the rabbis in the community.   In the course of the argument, the woman spoke harshly to the rabbi, saying that he was less important than her father's shoes.  In response the rabbi pronounced a ban on her and excommunicated her from the community.   The dispute reached Maharitz for arbitration, [13] and he ruled that the ban on her stood even though what the woman had said was not an insult, since taking off shoes is actually a sign of respect.   This is what he said:

Even if her father were greater than all the men of antiquity, the glory of that great person would not be for his shoes; for who was greater than Moses, the teacher of all the prophets, and he was told "remove your sandals from your feet."

Sitting or Standing

Rabbi S.Y. Zevin, in his book Le-Or ha-Halakhah, brings a new and innovative explanation on our parasha, in the name of Rabbi Diskin (Yehoshua Leib Diskin, 1818- 1898, talmudic giant, rabbi of Brisk and then Jerusalem after 1876). [14]   According to the Midrash, at the burning bush Moses sought the crown for himself, and the Holy One, blessed be He, refused him:

Moses wished to have priests and kings descend from him.  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:  "Do not draw closer" – in other words, your sons will not offer sacrifices, for it has already been decided that the priesthood shall go to your brother Aaron…   The Holy One, blessed be He, told him that it had already been decided that the crown would go to David. [15]

Rabbi Zevin asks:  What has this request to do with the event at hand, for at this stage Moses had not even begun his career as a leader and as the greatest of prophets?  Now, said Rabbi Zevin, according to one of the definitions given by the Sages, and old person, well on in years, is someone who cannot remove a shoe from one foot while balancing on the other; it is told of Rabbi Hanina that even at the age of eighty he was still able to perform this complicated maneuver. [16]

Until what age is someone considered young?   Rabbi Ila’a said, quoting Rabbi Hanina:  anyone who can balance on one foot while taking off or putting on his shoe on the other.   It was said of Rabbi Hanina that he was eighty years old and could stand on one foot while putting on and removing his shoe from the other foot.

Moses was eighty years old when he was at the burning bush and received the command to remove his shoes, but he could not sit down to do so since "the place on which you stand is holy ground," and the Sages ordained that one may not sit on the Temple Mount as a sign of respect for the place: “There is no sitting in the courtyard save for kings of Davidic lineage (Sotah 41b).”  This explains the Midrash above: Moses requested G-d to give him permission to sit down at the burning bush, like the kings of the House of David, so that he could remove his shoes, to which the Lord answered, "Do not come closer."

                                                                                                                                         



[1] In the opinion of most halakhic authorities, this proscription is from the Torah.   See Resp. Yabia Omer, part 6, Orah Hayyim, par. 26.  Some hold that even respecting the sanctity of the synagogue is a commandment from the Torah; see Resp. Heikhal Yitzhak, Orah Hayyim, par. 12.

[2] Sifra, Kedoshim, 3.7.9.

[3] Sifre Deuteronomy, par. 258.

[4] Berakhot 62b.

[5] Ecclesiastes Rabbah, ch. 4, par. 1.17.

[6] Rosh ha-Shanah 31b.

[7] Sotah 40a.

[8] Hilkhot Tefillah u-Nesi'at Kapayim 11.10.

[9] Orah Hayyim, par. 151.

[10] Berakhot 62b. Spitting in the synagogue, though technically allowed, is also restricted by the posekim.

[11] H. Peretz, Aharon ha-Geonim be-Tunisia, Bnei Berak 2000, p. 96.

[12] Responsa Maharitz, part 1, par. 39.

[13] One of the eminent Sephardic rabbis of Safed. 

[14] S. Y. Zevin, Le-or ha-Halakhah, Jerusalem 1996, p. 183.

[15] Exodus Rabbah, ch. 2, par. 6.

[16] Hullin 24b.