In Exodus Chapter 3, God sees that Moses went to look at the burning bush. Then God instructs Moses: “Do not come near. Remove your shoes from your feet because the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Why did Moses receive this instruction to discalceate? (Don’t you love that word!)
Note that the reader is not told how far the radius of holiness extended.
One scholar suggests that the problem was with Moses’ sandals. Sandals, being fashioned from animal skins, were considered impure. (Of course, this solution assumes that there was a concept of impurity even before the Torah was given at Sinai.)
Another suggestion is that taking off one’s shoes is a sign of respect. Sandals accumulated dust and dirt and may have been typically removed before entering a house. All the more so, it may not have been considered proper or respectful to come into a sacred place without first removing one’s dusty and dirty footgear.
A third idea is presented by Rabbi S.R. Hirsch: “Taking off one’s shoes expresses giving oneself up entirely to the meaning of a place, to let your personality get its standing and take up its position entirely and directly on it without any intermediary.” He adds that the kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash also had to function barefoot.
A fourth idea is that the removal of the sandals represents a renunciation of any claims to possession. Walking with shoes was a way of taking possession. Yet man cannot take ownership of the place of a theophany, since those places exclusively belong to God. (This explanation also fits nicely with the idea that the priests in the Beit Hamikdash had to function barefoot.)
A fifth idea is presented by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: “The shoe is the symbol of vulgarity and uncouthness, of superficiality, of raw power… To understand holiness, to gain sensitivity, a person must remove his shoes.” (See Chumash Mesoras Ha-Rav, p. 24.)
Finally, another suggestion notes that Moses was about to commence a mission that would begin the world afresh by bringing Torah from heaven to earth. Therefore, Moses was instructed to learn the difference between holy and profane. Since Moses was to lead the nation from the amorphous mentality of slavery to the elevated status of freedom, Moses himself was tested to see if he was willing to accept the distinctions that religion sometimes demands.
(The above discussion was based on Alec Goldstein, A Theology of Holiness, pp. 96-98.)
When Moses was commanded to take off his shoes above, the word used was Sh-L (“shal”). It means “slip off, drop off.” Where does this word come from? It turns out that the root is N-Sh-L. This root appears only seven times in Tanach, and three of these times the nun is not even there. (Another famous example of this root is at Joshua 5:15 where Joshua receives a command similar to the one Moses received.) This is a good place to remind everyone that a peculiarity of Hebrew is that in the command form, that first root letter often (but not always) drops. Another example is K-H (=take) where the initial L drops. But only certain letters drop as first letters in the command form.
R. Hirsch has an interesting discussion of N-Sh-L at Deut. 19:5, “ve-nashal ha-barzel min ha-etz.” The context is an accidental killing where the killer is allowed to escape to the city of refuge. At Makkot 7b there is a disagreement between R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi and the Sages as to what the precise case is. R. Hirsch agrees with the Sages that the case involves the iron coming off from the handle. He writes: “All the other places in which N-Sh-L occurs indicates that it does not designate a part being separated from the whole… but the separation of one body from another to which it had been attached, thus of a shoe from a foot … the fruit from the tree (Deut. XXVIII,40), the inhabitants from their land (Deut. VII,1)…”
Now would be an appropriate time to discuss a perplexing statement found at Psalms 60:10. First the verse insults Moav. The verse calls it: “sir rachatzi.” The meaning seems to be “washbasin,” a place where a conqueror might wash his feet. Then the second part of this verse reads: “Al Edom ashlich na’ali,” upon (or unto) Edom, I will throw my shoe.
What is the symbolism of the shoe here? I will mention a few suggestions:
-Throwing a shoe, which is an insult even in modern times, was also an insult in Biblical times. (E.g., a master throws a dirty shoe at a slave so that the slave can clean it.) The meaning is that Edom will be treated with contempt.
-It symbolized taking possession of their land.
-It symbolized trampling and military defeating the other party.
-It symbolized making the recipient your slave, since shoe removal was a task of a slave.
Of course, others think that “na’ali” does not mean “shoe” here at all but means “my chain.” I.e., a chain will be thrown at their feet to try to trap them.
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected] He usually keeps his shoes on and tries not to throw them.
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.