One of the prohibitions of Yom Kippur is the wearing of leather shoes.
The other prohibitions, such as eating or washing, are unpleasant or
inconvenient; what is the significance of not wearing shoes?
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach wrote a fascinating analysis of the various
times shoes must be removed. It is printed in M'vakshei Torah, Vol. 3, pp.
The daily brocha, "She'asa Li Kol Tzorki" -- who has sustained all my
needs -- refers to shoes. Why are shoes exemplary of "all my needs"? We might
have said that leather shoes are beyond basic necessity; when Hashem grants
us this luxury, we feel that "all needs" have been satisfied. However, the
Talmud contradicts this. "A person should sell all his possessions and keep
shoes." (Shabbos 129a) Thus, shoes are considered the most basic necessity!
If so, how do the shoes demonstrate that Hashem has sustained all my needs?
The shoes are the simplest of needs!
Siddur Shlah quotes from Maharshal: Of the four realms of creatures:
Man, animal, vegetable, mineral, each higher entity dominates the lower one.
Man rules over them all. This is exemplified by the process of removing an
animal's skin, making leather shoes, and putting one's foot upon those shoes.
Leather shoes show man's dominion over the world, as the verses in Tehilim
state (Psalms 8):
6. For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and have crowned
him with glory and honor. 7. You made him rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet. 8. All sheep and oxen, and the beasts
of the field; 9. The bird of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatever
passes through the paths of the seas.
This verse -- "You have put all things `under his feet'" -- alludes to
Rav Auerbach notes that the language -- "You have put `all' things under
his feet" -- is clearly the basis for the brocha, "who has sustained all
With this reasoning, one can understand why shoes are to be removed in
a holy place (Moshe and Yehoshua had to remove their shoes at specific moments
of prophecy; the Kohanim had to remove their shoes in the Bais Hamikdash).
Man does not have dominion there. Similarly, on Yom Kippur and Tisha B'av
one does not wear shoes. At such times, a person does not feel that he rules
The Torah commands the mitzva of Yibum (the Levirite Marriage). If a
man dies childless, leaving a widow, the dead man's brother must marry the
widow. If the brother refuses, the widow removes his shoe. (Devarim 25:5-10)
What is the meaning of this strange ceremony?
Rav Auerbach explains: The Yibum marriage is basically not performed
today. The reason is that, normally, the brother's wife is an incestuous
relation, only permitted in this unusual case. It is feared that a man will
see Yibum as a loophole -- merely a way of permitting the brother's wife.
Now, we understand; the woman's removal of the shoe is as if to say: "You
are not able to rule yourself!"
It follows that the type of shoe required for this mitzva
("Chalitza" -- releasing the brother's wife) is a leather one. It is specifically
the leather shoes that show man's dominion over the animal.
Rav Auerbach's words are very inspiring. However, there is a difficulty
with his interpretation, because of the following:
The Medrash in Pirke D'rebbe Eliezer tells how the accuser compares Israel
to the angels on Yom Kippur. "Just as the ministering angels don't wear shoes,
so the Israelites don't wear shoes... Just as the ministering angels are
pure from sin, so are the Israelites..." (Ch. 46).
Derech Hachayim quotes the Drishah. According to the Medrash, why are
non-leather shoes permitted? The Jews are not barefoot entirely, but remove
the animal's skin from their feet. This signifies that they don't want to
be glued to the animalistic. Similarly, the Medrash states that the Jews
are not "jumping about" just as the angels are not. This refers to the
"hispashtus hagashmiyus" removal of the animal. The Jews are not wandering
here and there, trying to satisfy their animalistic desires on this day,
but are involved with holy prayers and songs of praise. (See Kuzari, ch.
3. part 5).
According to this, the removal of the shoe represents the elevation of
humanity on this holy day. To Rav Auerbach, however, the removal of the shoe
seems to be a sign to man that he has not acted in a controlled manner as
is fit; he has not truly ruled himself and his "animal;" he has abused the
dominion that Hashem has granted him.
Perhaps it is all the same. By lowering himself and reflecting on his
errors, by separating from the physical, man comes closer and closer to the
spiritual. The day of death is the ultimate lowering of the body -- which
remains silent without its soul -- but it is the uplifting of the soul itself.
It is no coincidence that there is an ancient custom to wear the kittel on
Yom Kippur. The kittel is the shrouds of the departed. The reason, supposedly,
was to dress in white, again like the angels. Amazing, isn't it? The similarity
to the angels is brought about by the shrouds! The implication is that, by
separating from the physical for one day, the soul can be purified and elevated.
Later, it can return to the body with greater sensitivity, dominion, and
G'mar Chasimah Tovah!
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