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Synagogue Shoe Policy

by RabbiHaLevi on behalf of Congregation Shirat Hayam / June 02, 2011

Here’s a seemingly random and insignificant thought (but I think interesting and one I contemplate every time I enter my shul): why aren’t Jews the ones who remove their shoes before entering a synagogue?

Muslims do it?
Asians do it?
Jews, however, wouldn’t be caught dead in socks or barefoot in their synagogues, Temples or shuls.

Why not? After all, we read in the Torah: “Do not come any closer,” God says to Moses. “Take off your shoes, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5).

On many levels it makes a lot of sense.

  1. It seems to be a natural response throughout history to the presence of God or the notion of prayer.
  2. According to tests, the bottom’s of shoes contain some 66 million organisms – more than toilet seats.
  3. Beyond the yuck factor, it just seems like good Feng Shui – dirty shoes, dirty energy – fundamental Feng Shul if you ask me.
  4. The Torah says so.
  5. It is so much more comfy than most of the shoes we show up in to shul.

Alas, it’s not the Jewish way, not part of our culture. Still, maybe we’ll try it out, make it an offering next week at our Synaplex Shabbat.

Rabbi B

RabbiB.com

shirathayam.org


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Older Comments

David Levy
David Levy
Jamaica Plain, MA
June 03, 2011

I don't know, I think if more Jews believed that they didn't need to be in a special place to access holiness, then Judaism and the world would be a better place.

My understanding (based on Deuteronomy) is that we affix a mezuzah to remind ourselves of our duty to study and teach mitzvot, not to demarcate places of holiness. We wear kippot because of a long tradition of recognizing our humility during acts of prayer -- regardless of place. And we refrain from using our cell phone only on Shabbat and holidays when specific acts of "work" are prohibited, but certainly not during other times in synagogues. Again, that's about sanctity of time, not of place.

I've always associated the removal of shoes as a Jewish sign of mourning (which I believe comes from the book of Isaiah)... certainly not the mood I hope to bring into my Shabbat spaces!

Rabbi B
Rabbi B
Swampscott, MA
June 03, 2011

David,

thanks for the response. Interesting idea but sad in my opinion. If only more Jews believed that synagogues were kadosh, felt awe inspired and drawn to open their hearts and pour forth their soul to speak to God....synagogues, Judaism and the world would be a better place. Not sure that something being deemed kadosh, holy, separate  and special (like a home, a yoga studio or even a shul) deems it a shrine or elevates it to idolatry. Isn't this why we affix a mezuzah, put on a kippah or refrain from using our cell phone in such a space?

 

There are some smaller, more intimate congregations-- that one could argue are trying to cultivate a more intimate relationship with God (or spirituality in general)--that do encourage or allow people to remove shoes. Moishe Kavod House in Brookline is one such community, and I think it is done for a variety of reasons. It is also a home, which one could think of as a separate reason, but the fact that it is a home is part of what is in itself creating the more intimate space and the opportunity for communal worship. 

David Levy
David Levy
Jamaica Plain, MA
June 02, 2011

I think a major piece of this is that Jews don't believe that synagogues are holy ground, at least, not in the Exodus sense of that phrase. Any space where Jews gather to pray becomes sacred space for that moment -- we don't need a holy mountain or a synagogue or even any sort of building at all.

The Torah says that God tells Moses to remove his shoes because Moses is in God's presence -- not in the "God is everywhere" sense that we use to understand the ineffibility of God, but in the more real sense of God concentrating and locating God's "self" at the place of the burning bush in order to have an intimate, face-to-face experience with Moses. That is not what happens in synagogues -- even in the best of them.

Jewish tradition goes out of its way to make sure we don't accidentally slide into idolotry -- we don't know the "actual" locations of the burning bush, Mount Sinai, or the burial place of Moses, so we can't turn them into shrines. We keep the focus on ideas rather than places or objects. I think it would be a grave mistake to start treating synagogues like shrines.

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