Now this was the custom in former time in Israel concerning redemption
and concerning exchange, to confirm all things: a man drew off his shoe,
and gave it to his neighbor; and this was the attestation in Israel.--
So the near kinsman said to Boaz: 'Buy it for yourself.' And he drew off
his shoe (4:7-8).
Boaz and the unnamed relative performed a ceremony that marked both the
exchange of property and realignment of familial lines. The verse informs
us that drawing off and transferring a shoe was the means by which all
exchanges and dealings were sealed. Those involved in business and
commerce know that bargaining and negotiations cannot be allowed to go on
forever. There needs to be a symbolic act, be it a handshake or in our
more sophisticated times, a memorandum of understanding, that puts an end
to this process and marks the completion of the deal. The taking off of
the shoe may have served such a purpose at that time.
Why the shoe? The Shelah (Siddur, Birchas Hashachar) suggests that wearing
leather symbolizes manís mastery over his environment. Man hunts animals
and rules over their bodies and their skins. Casting off a shoe made of
leather and transferring it to another person a symbolic giving up of
power and mastery. Before two individuals make a deal, each one struggles
to extend his power over the piece of the world that is in the hands of
the other. A completed business transaction is the recognition that just
as I have a right to a sole ownership of a piece of this world so does the
other party. The transfer of a shoe represents renunciation of claims and
recognition of the limits to oneís power and authority in the face of
another human being ( R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach quoted in Shirat Levi).
An even more profound understanding arises from the comments of R. Elazar
"R. Elazar arose and said: '... certainly it was Torah Law (If so why was
it only at that time and why was it later changed?). This was a profound
mystery and because the early ones were righteous and saintly, this matter
was revealed to them. Once the wicked increased in the world, this type of
transaction was performed in a different manner so as to conceal that
which stems from a higher levels'.
In itself this is the standard teaching of the Zohar, that many rites were
given in several equally legitimate forms each one suitable and reserved
for different generations, depending on each oneís spiritual level and
accomplishment. What is now of more interest to us is the explanation that
derives from this teaching. We start by pointing out that casting of a
shoe is the centerpiece of the rite of chalitzah ( refusal to engage in a
levirate marriage) and it is also a prominent feature of approaching the
Divine. This establishes a connection between the two concepts.
"Come and see. "..And He said, Do not come hither. Cast off your
shoe"(Exodus 3:5). Why a shoe? He commanded Moses to separate from his
wife and to attach himself to another woman, the light of the Most High,
which is the Shekhina (Ibid, see also p. 148)."
The shoe then represents transition and exchange. This is why when a man
elects not to wed his late brotherís wife, to not rebuild his brotherís
line, to not remove his shoe and give it to her, it is she who takes off
his shoe, revealing his lack of generosity and charity.
These inspired words of the Zohar yield the following understanding. The
act of casting off a shoe is in essence an act of reaching beyond oneself.
Just as the spiritual world spans the earth and heaven, so does manís
spiritual form extend from earth toward heaven. "Thus says HaShem: the
heaven is My throne, and the earth is footstool for my feet (Isaiah
66:1)". Similarly manís head reaches far into Heaven, his feet rest
securely upon the earth, and his body spans the entire distance between
the two. What separates man from the earth? Nothing, but his shoes! The
act of casting off the shoe represents reaching beyond oneself to engage
with that which is outside of him.
"Each thing that is higher and affects and influences the one that is
lower, is called 'seller' and the lower one is called 'buyer'.. From this
one derives that every trade and transaction partakes of joining and
connecting of the giver and the receiver" (Mikdash Melech to Tikkunei
Zohar 2:27, cited in Idrei Tzon).
No wonder then that the act of casting off the shoe fell into disuse as
the elevated perception that engaging another human being means reaching
beyond and outside oneís limitations in order to give and not in order to
take receded from the consciousness of human beings. When business
dealings became all about winning, when even the love between man and
woman could not bridge the distance between selves, the symbols that once
meant so much lost all meaning. They no longer served their vital function
and other symbols took their place.