This was my Kol Tikvah newsletter article for September 2011. I thought it might be helpful for us for this week, too. Gamar Chatimah Tovah — may you be inscribed and sealed in the Book for good!
I admit: this is not the usual headline for one of my articles. But each year at Yom Kippur, after I walk in with my sneakers, I am greeted with, “Nice Shoes!” Or perhaps folks will share that they are glad I chose comfort over fashion. (I can’t imagine people would be saying that I would ever choose fashion over comfort.)
So what’s the deal with wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers? New fashion craze or spiritual statement?
According to Jewish Tradition, one does not wear leather shoes. It is not that we are commanded to wear sneakers. But it is a mitzvah to avoid wearing leather shoes (belts and accessories are traditionally permitted). Why? The prooftext emerges from the instructions in the Book of Leviticus to “afflict” ourselves on Yom Kippur. This idea is the key ingredient for our personal practices on Yom Kippur. We do not hurt ourselves, to be sure. But we are instructed to postpone some of our pleasures and abstain from eating, drinking, anointing oneself (which is understood today as applying lotions, creams, or make up), bathing, and spousal intimacy. But the one that is often forgotten is to abstain from wearing leather footwear.
To our ancient ancestors, leather shoes were a luxury item. To wear leather shoes was a sign of comfort and status. Our sages taught that such comfortable shoes contradicted the spirit of the message “to afflict” ourselves.
Another perspective is from Rabbi Moshe Isserles, one of our greatest Ashkenazi commentators and contributor to the Shulchan Aruch (Judaism’s most recognized code of Jewish law). He pointed out how this practice teaches compassion for all living creatures: “How can a person put on shoes, a piece of clothing for which it is necessary to kill a living thing, on Yom Kippur, which is a day of grace and compassion, when it is written ‘God’s tender mercies are over all of God’s works’? (Psalms 145:9).” So while the Torah clearly says that we can use animals for certain purposes, according to Isserles, we should not be so bold and wear leather on Yom Kippur.
And while some ultra-Orthodox rabbis have ruled that Crocs are too comfortable and thus should not be worn, I would say leave that aside and say…let’s make a new fashion statement this Yom Kippur. I always believe in the power of taking on new traditions and finding new ways to connect to our tradition, our faith and our God. Perhaps our shoes we choose could be one of the ways to build that connection.
I’ll be wearing my canvas shoes (which are far less comfortable than my dress shoes). You can come in your Keds or Vans or Crocs, some might choose boat shoes or even slippers (they will go great with your suit!). If you want to make a statement, some rabbis are encouraging their congregants to go to TOMS shoes (www.toms.com) — where for every pair of shoes you buy, the company donates one pair of shoes to a child in need somewhere around the world. So you fulfill two mitzvot for the price of one! (Note: some do have leather, so inspect well.)