Fasting and Asceticism

What is prohibited on Yom Kippur?

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Wearing Shoes

You may notice a lot of people wearing sneakers, particularly the basic canvas and rubber models, to synagogue. It is not for comfort, although they certainly function that way with all the standing we do during the services. Wearing shoes (sandals in biblical days) of leather was forbidden in holy places, as we learned from Moses' experience before the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:5), where he removed his sandals. The Kohanim [priests] removed their shoes when giving the Priestly Benediction in the Temple (as the Kohanim do today when they stand before the Ark in front of the congregation for the dukhan service, during which they make the blessing). Since the day of Yom Kippur entails a reliving of the Temple experience, we forego our leather shoes as well.

(As usual, the rabbis offer another reason: After Adam and Eve's sin, the earth, which was supposed to have been holy ground, became contaminated. We normally wear shoes to keep from having direct contact with the defiled ground. But on Yom Kippur, when we make atonement with God and focus on attaining the purity of Creation, the earth is holy, and so we don't have to separate ourselves from it.)

On the physical level, leather shoes protect the feet, providing comfort, while footwear of other materials or going barefoot does not. On the Day of Atonement, we forego bodily pleasure. Because of their comfort, and also their expense, even in biblical times leather shoes were considered a luxury (Song of Songs 7:2) and thought to contribute to a feeling of pride and haughtiness in the wearer. Since Yom Kippur, and the entire Ten Days of Repentance, are designed to produce feelings of humility, wearing leather shoes would interfere with one's proper frame of mind. (Despite the admonition of overzealous rabbis, the prohibition is specifically for leather shoes ­whether the top or sole is of leather-‑and not other items made from the skins of animals. Coats, hats, watchbands, and so on are all permissible.)

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Lesli Koppelman Ross is a writer and artist whose works have appeared nationally. She has devoted much of her time to the causes of Ethiopian Jewry and Jewish education.