Judaism and Barefoot Prayer

Orthodox Jewish men praying at the Wailing Wall
Nils Juenemann/EyeEm/Getty Images

When praying in Judaism, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of customs about what to wear and how to wear different clothing items. Some synagogues will not let you be called for an aliyah unless you’re wearing a suit jacket and in others you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing shorts during services.

One of the more peculiar traditions surrounds the wearing -- or not wearing -- of shoes while praying.

So what does halacha (Jewish law) have to say about shoes?

Origins

Shir haShirim 7:2 says, “How beautiful are your feet in sandals,” which led Rabbi Akiva to insist that his son Joshua always covered his feet. The reason? A bare foot was a sign of sensuousness, luxury, and pleasure.

In the Talmud, the rabbis direct a person to “sell the roof beams of his house to buy shoes for his feet” (Shabbat 129a).

The view of many is that you should dress as if you’re standing before a king or other royalty (Orach Chaim 91:5). This thought was elaborated in a Masorti responsa "Women and the Wearing of Pants" from Israel, in which Rabbi Chaim Weiner stressed that

"In the synagogue, we must be much more scrupulous about modesty. We must honor the place and the occasion. The guiding principle must be to view the synagogue as a 'small sanctuary' and prayer as the standing of man before God. And thus, we must dress in the synagogue as we would dress to go greet a VIP, in dignified and modest clothing.”

On the other hand, Mishnah Berurah 91:13 says that in a place where it is acceptable to wear sandals before a VIP or royalty it also is acceptable to pray in sandals. Likewise, in Hilchot Tefilah 5:5, Rambam rules according to a "when in Rome" philosophy, saying

"One should not pray wearing [only] his undershirt, bareheaded, or barefoot if it is the custom of the people of that place to stand before their most respected people with shoes."

In Kabbalah, the body is called the “shoe of the soul,” because just as shoes protect the feet from dirt, the body protects the soul while it sojourns in the physical world.

These are just some of the reasons that many Jews will not pray without wearing shoes on their feet, including if those shoes are technically sandals.

Exceptions to the Rule

Although having the feet covered is the standard in Jewish law, there are times when wearing shoes is prohibited, including when the priestly blessing is said during synagogue services. During this particular part of the service, Kohanim (descendents of the priests) remove their shoes outside of the main sanctuary, have their hands washed, re-enter the synagogue, and give the priestly blessing to the congregation.

The background for this practice of removing the shoes was to avoid possibly embarrassing one of the Kohanim who had damaged shoe lace that might have kept him behind repairing the issue while his fellow priests blessed the congregation.

Also, Rashba ruled that in Muslim countries, where it is disrespectful to enter a home, let alone a house of worship or the presence of a king, that Jews can pray barefoot.

Shoes and Mourning

On Tisha b’Av, a powerful day of mourning in Judaism, Jews are forbidden from wearing leather shoes, and the same applies to Yom Kippur.

Leather shoes are considered a luxury, and the prohibition of wearing such shoes is a sign of penance and remorse.

Likewise, in Isaiah, the mourning prophet is commanded to take off his sandals (20:20), which ties into the prohibition of wearing leather shoes during the seven days of mourning, or shiva, after someone dies. According to some sources, mourners and those carrying the casket of the dead were, in fact, barefoot. 

For the dead in Judaism, shoes can be placed on the body, but only if they are made of cotton or linen. Traditionally, however, the body is covered in a shroud, which also covers the feet, so shoes are unnecessary.

Other Traditions

Among some Chasidic groups, leather shoes are removed before visiting the grave of a holy person. This tradition is adopted from the episode of the Burning Bush in which Moses is commanded to “Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

The dictates a specific order when putting on shoes. According to this Code of Jewish Law, you put the right shoe on first and when tying the shoes, you start with the left shoe and the left side of the laces. When you’re removing the shoes, always start with the left. Why? The right is considered more important than the left, so the right should never be uncovered while the left is uncovered as well.

Starting on the left lace when tying the shoes is a reminder of tefillin, which a majority of individuals place on the left arm because they are right-handed. The only discrepancy in tying the laces, then, is for those that are left-handed. Lefties place tefillin on their right arm, so for lefties, the right shoe should be tied first, starting with the right side of the laces.

The Halitzah Ritual

Shoes and the covering of the feet also play a significant role in a fairly unknown ritual in Judaism called halitzah. In Ruth, Naomi instructs her daughter-in-law Ruth, whose husband has died, to go lay next to Boaz and uncover his feet (3:4).

The origins of this act come from Deuteronomy 25:5-9 in the case of the man who dies childless leaving a widow and unmarried brother. In this case, the brother is obligated to marry the widow (his sister in law) according to the laws of Levirate marriage, which seeks to continue the family name and the soul of the deceased brother through a new marriage and the birth of children within the family.

In the halitzah marriage, the widow and the brother-in-law go before a rabbinical court, or bet din, of five Shabbat-observant individuals.

On the right foot the brother-in-law wears a moccasin-style “halitzah shoe” made of two pieces of fabric made from the skin of a kosher animal sown together with leather.

During the ceremony, the widow says that her brother-in-law will not marry her and he confirms. After this, the widow puts her left hand on the brother-in-law’s calf, undoes the laces of the shoe with her right hand, takes the shoe off his foot, and throws it to the ground. The final act in this ritual has the widow spitting on the ground in front of her brother-in-law followed by the bet din formally releasing all of the obligations on the brother-in-law and the widow.

Tips

If you're not sure what type of synagogue you're entering, always err on the side of wearing shoes so as to not offend anyone or create an uncomfortable situation. Consider doing a bit of research in advance to understand the culture of the community and whether there is a more casual dress code or if the local tradition is to wear sandals or open-toed shoes. 

If you are praying at home, there are leniences for barefoot prayer. When in doubt, ask your local rabbi. 

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Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "Judaism and Barefoot Prayer." ThoughtCo, May. 15, 2017, thoughtco.com/jews-and-shoes-2076783. Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. (2017, May 15). Judaism and Barefoot Prayer. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jews-and-shoes-2076783 Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "Judaism and Barefoot Prayer." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jews-and-shoes-2076783 (accessed November 18, 2017).