1. Introductory:

Jastrow, in article on "Tearing the Garments" (Jour. of the Am. Oriental Soc., XXI, 23-39) presents a view worth considering of going barefoot as a sign of mourning and then of grief in general (compare also Jewish Encyclopedia, article "Barefoot"). All these passages seem to imply the discomfort or going barefoot on long journeys, over stony roads or hot sands; but then, as now, in the Orient sandals seem to have been little worn ordinarily in and around the house.

See Shoe.

2. An Ancient Oriental Custom:

The "shoes" of the ancients, as we know from many sources, were "sandals," i.e. simply soles, for the most part of rawhide, tied to the feet to protect them against the gravel, stones or thorns of the road. Shoes of the modern sort, as well as socks and stockings, were unknown. In ancient times it was certainly a common custom in Bible lands to go about in and around one’s house without sandals. The peasantry, indeed, like the fellaheen of today, being hardened to it, often went afield barefoot. But for a king, or a prophet, a priest or a worshipper, to go barefoot, was another matter, as it was also for a mourner, for one in great distress, to be found walking the streets of a city, or going any distance in bare feet. Here we come again to customs peculiar to the Orient, and of various significance. For instance, it was considered then, as it is now in the Moslem world, profane and shocking, nothing short of a desecration, to enter a sanctuary, or walk on "holy ground," with dust-covered shoes, or unwashed feet. Moses and Joshua were commanded to take off their shoes when on "holy ground" (Ex 3:5; Jos 5:15). "No one was allowed to walk on the temple ground with shoes on, or with dust on his feet" (Ber., IX, 5; compare Jamblichus, Pythagoras, section 105). No one in the East today is allowed to enter any mosque with shoes on, or without first putting slippers furnished for the purpose over his shoes. As a rule, too, the feet must be cleansed by ablution in every such case, as well as hands and feet before each meal.

3. Priests on Duty Went Barefoot:

The priests of Israel, as would seem true of the priests in general among the ancients, wore no shoes when ministering (see Silius Italicus, III, 28; compare Theodoret on Ex 3, questio 7; and Yer. Shet., 5, 48d). In ancient times, certainly the priests of Israel, when going upon the platform to serve before the ark, in Tabernacle or temple, as later in the synagogue to bless the congregation, went barefoot; though today strange to say, such ministering priests among the Jews wear stockings, and are not supposed to be barefoot (CoTah, 40a; RH, 316; Shulchan ’Arukh, ’Orach Chayyim, 128, 5; see Jewish Encyclopedia, article "Barefoot").

4. Reasons for the Ancient Custom:

The reason or reasons for the removal of the shoes in such cases as the above, we are not at a loss to divine; but when it comes to the removal of the shoes in times of mourning, etc., opinions differ. Some see in such customs a trace of ancestor- worship; others find simply a reversion or return to primitive modes of life; while others still, in agreement with a widely prevalent Jewish view, suggest that it was adopted as a perfectly natural symbol of humility and simplicity of life, appropriate to occasions of grief, distress and deep solemnity of feeling.

The shoes are set aside now by many modern Jews on the Day of Atonement and on the Ninth of Ab.


Winer, Robinson, Biblical Researches, under the word "Priester und Schuhe"; Riehm, Handworterbuch des bib. Alt., under the word "Schuhe."

George B. Eager