Shoeless on Yom Kippur
The Torah does not specify what is forbidden on Yom Kippur; it says only תְּעַנּוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם “you must afflict yourselves” (Lev 16:29). The Mishnah interprets this as a reference to five specific innuyim “self-afflictions” (m. Yoma 8:1):
יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים אָסוּר בַּאֲכִילָה וּבִשְׁתִיָּה וּבִרְחִיצָה וּבְסִיכָה וּבִנְעִילַת הַסַּנְדָּל וּבְתַשְׁמִישׁ הַמִּטָּה.
On Yom Kippur eating and drinking, washing, applying [oil on the body], wearing shoes, and sexual intercourse are prohibited.
The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 78b) explains that shoes are prohibited because they give comfort, “וּמִשּׁוּם תַּעֲנוּג.” This interpretation led many authorities to limit the prohibition to leather shoes specifically, as these are the most comfortable. While nowadays many modern non-leather (or faux leather) sneakers can be more comfortable than leather dress shoes, in antiquity, with the limits of the cobbler’s materials, leather was generally the most protective and comfortable material for shoes.
Nevertheless, the Mishnah says nothing about “leather,” and very well might have been requiring people to remain barefoot on Yom Kippur.
The Symbolism of Bare Feet
Throughout the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, removal of shoes was a common act of preparation for engaging with the divine in a sacred place; this remains true today in Muslim prayer. When standing before the Burning Bush, God tells Moses to remove his shoes (Exod 3:5), and Joshua receives the same message near Jericho (Josh 5:15).
Notably, the instructions for the design of the priestly vestments in Exodus 28 and 39, which spell out the details for all the garments, leave footwear completely unmentioned. While such lack of mention of footwear could mean that any shoes were acceptable, Joachim J. Krause has argued persuasively that barefootedness is to be assumed here, based on the ubiquity of barefootedness before the divine in the ancient Near East, and the stories about Moses and Joshua, which assume that barefootedness is appropriate on sacred ground.
The practice of serving God barefoot communicates a kind of transcendence of the physical world. As Laura Lieber of Duke University points out, some traditional sources, such as the poetry of Yannai and Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, associate being barefoot (on Yom Kippur) with being angel-like, as angels are also barefooted.
At the same time, it also communicates humility, and perhaps even humiliation. We see the latter in the halitzah ritual (releasing a man from levirate marriage obligations). In this ceremony, when a man refuses to marry his deceased brother’s childless widow, and produce an heir for his dead brother, the woman is to publicly degrade the man by removing his shoe and spitting in his face. The man is then nicknamed בֵּית חֲלוּץ הַנָּעַל “house of the removed shoe” (Deut 25:10).
While the simple explanation for the Yom Kippur practice is about physical suffering, as going barefoot allows one to feel the hardness and/or roughness of the ground beneath one’s feet, it is likely that feelings of transcendence, humility, and even humiliation may also be a part of the practice.
Cheating for Shoes
In ancient times, not everyone had shoes; they were not treated as an absolutely necessary item of clothing. Nevertheless, they were relatively inexpensive as “luxury” items go, and many/most regular people had a pair. Certainly, expensive pairs of shoes did exist, but a regular pair of shoes would have been a small ticket item for a wealthy person. Thus, Amos uses the imagery of wealthy people cheating others merely to purchase shoes as an indictment of the Israelite elite:
עמוס ב:ו כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה עַל שְׁלֹשָׁה פִּשְׁעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל אַרְבָּעָה לֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ עַל מִכְרָם בַּכֶּסֶף צַדִּיק וְאֶבְיוֹן בַּעֲבוּר נַעֲלָיִם׃
Amos 2:6 Thus said YHWH: For three transgressions of Israel, for four, I will not revoke it: Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of shoes.
Amos’ accusation likely refers to one of two scenarios:
- Someone in power, like a judge, is selling out (e.g., rendering an unfair judgment) a person in return for a bribe, namely the silver and shoes;
- A creditor reducing a poor person to debt slavery (“sold”) over a defaulted loan used simply to buy a pair of shoes.
Either way, the pair of shoes are here depicted as relatively cheap, such that either someone was corrupt enough to ruin another person for just a small bribe, or a creditor was mean enough to reduce someone to debt slavery over a small debt.
Selling Joseph for Shoes
Rather than reading this verse form Amos in a generic sense, a midrash saw the accusation in Amos as a reference to the sale of Joseph by his brothers; this is why this passage (Amos 2:6–3:8) was chosen as the haftarah reading for Parashat Vayeshev (Gen 37–40). The brothers sell him for 20 shekels, the going rate for a working age male (see Lev 27:5), but Midrash Tanchuma (mid-1st m. C.E.) notes that when the silver is divided among the brothers, the money only amounts to two pieces of silver per brother, enough just for each of them to buy a pair of shoes:
הֵן מוֹלִיכִין אוֹתוֹ לִקְצוֹת הַמִּדְבָּר. עָמְדוּ מְכָרוּהוּ בְּעֶשְׂרִים כֶּסֶף, לְכָל אֶחָד מֵהֶם שְׁנֵי כֶסֶף לִקְנוֹת מִנְעָלִים לְרַגְלֵיהֶם.
They took him to the edge of the wilderness, where they sold him for twenty pieces of silver. Each one obtained, thereby, two pieces of silver with which to purchase a pair of shoes for their feet.
The word for a person whose cause is just, tzaddik, which can also be translated “a righteous person,” is the standard rabbinic epithet for Joseph, and may be one reason the midrash reads Amos as referring to Joseph.
Why Joseph Was Worth So Little: The Brothers’ Cruelty
Midrash Tanchuma continues by explaining why Joseph was sold so cheaply:
וְכִי תַעֲלֶה עַל דַּעְתְּךָ שֶׁנַּעַר יָפֶה כְמוֹתוֹ נִמְכָּר בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף. אֶלָּא כֵּיוָן שֶׁהֻשְׁלַךְ לַבּוֹר, מִתּוֹךְ פַּחַד נְחָשִׁים וְעַקְרַבִּים שֶׁבּוֹ, נִשְׁתַּנָּה זִיו פָּנָיו וּבָרַח מִמֶּנּוּ דָמוֹ וְנַעֲשׂוּ פָנָיו יְרֻקּוֹת. לְפִיכָךְ מְכָרוּהוּ בְּעֶשְׂרִים כֶּסֶף בַּעֲבוּר נַעֲלָיִם.
If you are surprised that a youth as handsome as he was sold for merely twenty pieces of silver, remember that when he was hurled into the pit, he was so fearful of the snakes and scorpions within it that his features were altered. The blood rushed from him, and his countenance turned pale. Therefore, they were forced to sell him for twenty pieces of silver, the value of a pair of shoes (for each of them).
The brothers ended up with so little to show for the sale of their brother—just a pair of shoes a piece—because their harsh treatment of him ruined Joseph’s looks and made him less valuable.
Shoes and the Ten Martyrs
This midrashic story of Joseph sold for shoes is the backdrop to the account of the ten martyrs, best known in the abbreviated poetic version, Eleh Ezkarah “These I Remember,” recited during the Yom Kippur mussaf service among Ashkenazim. The story begins with the Roman Caesar reading Torah. When he comes upon the verse in Exodus requiring the death penalty for anyone who kidnaps a person and sells him:
בְּלָמְדוֹ סֵפֶר מִפִּי מְשׁוּלֵי עֲרֵמַת, וְהֵבִין וְדִקְדֵּק בְּדָת רְשׁוּמַת, וּפָתַח בִּוְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְחָשַׁב מְזִמַּת, וְגוֹנֵב אִישׁ וּמְכָרוֹ וְנִמְצָא בְיָדו מוֹת יוּמָת
Whilst the ruler studied our holy book from [sages] likened to heaps of grain, considering and discerning our written tradition, he happened to open at “These are the statutes” (Exod 21:1) and devised an evil plan, as he read “One who steals a man and sells him, and is found out, shall surely be put to death” (Exod 21:16).
גָּבַהּ לֵב בִּגְדוֹלִים, וְצִוָּה לְמַלּאת פַּלְטֵרוֹ נְעָלִים, וְקָרָא לַעֲשָׂרָה חֲכָמִים גְּדוֹלִים, מְבִינֵי דָת וּטְעָמֶיהָ בְּפִלְפּוּלִים
The heart of this wicked idol worshiper grew haughty, he ordered that his palace be filled with shoes, and summoned ten great sages, with profound understanding of the law and its reasoning.
דִּינוּ מִשְׁפָּט זֶה לַאֲשׁוּרוֹ, וְאַל תְּעַוְּתוּהוּ בְּכָזָב לְאָמְרוֹ, כִּי אִם הוֹצִיאוּהוּ לַאֲמִתּוֹ וּלְאוֹרוֹ, כִּי יִמָּצֵא אִישׁ גּוֹנֵב נֶפֶשׁ מֵאֶחָיו מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהִתְעַמֶּר בּוֹ וּמְכָרוֹ
He declared: “Judge this case with precision—do not pervert it by making false statements, but bring true justice to light: what is the verdict if a man is found kidnapping one of his brothers from the children of Israel, treating him as a slave and selling him?”
הֵם כְּעָנוּ לו וּמֵת הַגַּנָּב הַהוּא, נָם אַיֵּה אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אֲחִיהֶם מְכָרוּהוּ, לְאֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים סְחָרוּהוּ, וּבְעַד נַעֲלַיִם נְתָנוּהוּ
When they answered: “That kidnapper shall be put to death,” he said: “Then what of your ancestors, who sold their brother, trading him with a traveling company of Ishmaelites, handing him over for the mere price of shoes?”
The account continues with the sages consulting with heaven to know if the Caesar is correct, and when it is confirmed, they submit. The story then proceeds with a gruesome account of the execution of each of the ten rabbis.
Martyrological Interpretation of History
While many and perhaps all of these rabbis may have been executed by the Romans, this did not occur all at one time. The midrash is not an attempt to trace their history; rather, it was designed to make sense of the tragedy of their deaths through the prism of biblical verses. In this vein, the 9th cent. C.E. Midrash Mishlei quotes a 3rd cent. C.E. scholar, Rabbi Abin, that every generation of Jews is still being punished for the sale of Joseph:
אמ[ר] ר[בי] יהושע בן לוי: לא נמשכו עשרת הרוגי מלכות אלא בחטא מכירתו של יוסף. אמ[ר] ר[בי] אבן: הוי אומ[ר] עשרה עשרה מכל דור ודור, ועדיין אותו החטא תלוי.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said, “The martyrs were not handed over to royalty except for the selling of Joseph.” Rabbi Abin said, “he meant ten from every generation, and the same sin still hangs [over us].”
According to Rabbi Abin, ten people from every generation must face the punishment that should have fallen upon the ten brothers who participated in the sale.
Yom Kippur Atones for the Sale of Joseph
The idea that the sale of Joseph needs to be atoned for centuries or even millennia later goes back to the book of Jubilees, a sectarian work written in the 2nd century B.C.E. According to Jubilees, the sale of Joseph happened on Yom Kippur itself, and the fast was created to atone for this sin:
Jub 34:12 And the sons of Jacob slaughtered a kid and dipped Joseph’s garment into the blood and sent (it) to Jacob, their father, on the tenth of the seventh month… 34:18 Therefore it is decreed for the children of Israel that they mourn on the tenth (day) of the seventh month—on the day when that which caused him to weep for Joseph came to Jacob, his father—so that they might atone for them(selves) with a young kid on the tenth (day) of the seventh month, once a year, on account of their sin because they caused the affection of their father to grieve for Joseph, his son. 34:19 And this day is decreed so that they might mourn on it on account of their sins and on account of all their transgressions and on account of all their errors in order to purify themselves on this day, once a year.
The connection Jubilees makes between the sale of Joseph and the Yom Kippur service is likely based on parallels between the texts: in both a goat is slaughtered, and a cloth (Joseph’s tunic/the Tabernacle’s curtain) covered in blood. Additionally, both Joseph and the High Priest wear a כתנת tunic (Gen 37:23; Lev 16:4), and each account includes a confession of sin (Gen 50:17, Lev 16:21).
The Sifra (Shemini 1), a 3rd cent. C.E. midrashic work, also claims that Yom Kippur offerings atone for the sin of the sale of Joseph and the sin of the Golden Calf:
יש בידכם בתחילה ויש בידכם בסוף, יש בידכם בתחילה "וישחטו שעיר עזים," ויש בידכם בסוף "עשו להם עגל מסכה." יבא שעיר עזים ויכפר על מעשה עזים, יבא עגל ויכפר על מעשה עגל.
You have in your hands an early sin and a later sin. The early sin is (Gen 37:31) “and [Joseph’s brothers] slaughtered a goat” and the later sin is (Exod 32:8) “they made a molten calf.” Let the goat [offered on Yom Kippur] atone for the act with a goat, and let the calf (i.e. bull) [offered on Yom Kippur] atone for the act with the calf.
The connection between the Joseph story and Yom Kippur likely encouraged the midrash about ten martyrs to become a piece of liturgy on Yom Kippur.
Postscript: Eschewing Shoes on Yom Kippur
In the midrash, Joseph’s brothers sell him for the small comfort of shoes, and in Amos the rich cheat the poor for the small comfort of shoes. If we remove our shoes on Yom Kippur as a straightforward reading of the Mishnah suggests, rather than just replacing our leather shoes with more casual (and more comfortable) footwear, perhaps we can realize a deeper meaning in this penitential act: Shoeless teshuvah (repentance) on Yom Kippur can make for a symbolic commitment to the rejection of the domination of others for one’s own comfort. Perhaps bare soles can bare the soul.
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September 14, 2021
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Prof. Jason Radine is Professor of Biblical and Jewish Studies and Chair of the Department of Global Religions, Moravian University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan in 2007 and was awarded a Post-Doctoral Humboldt Fellowship for study at the Georg-August Universität, Göttingen, Germany in 2011-2012. He is author of The Book of Amos in Emergent Judah (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010) and various articles on the Minor Prophets.
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