Shoes have always played a role in history and culture. Everyone knows the story of Cinderella and the glass slipper, or the tale of Puss and Boots. Remember Dorothy's magic ruby shoes in the Wizard of Oz?

Language is littered with references to shoes. We wait for the other shoe to drop, or try to experience life in another person's shoes. One has big shoes to fill when he takes on a new challenge. There is the phrase, "if the shoe fits, wear it."

Shoe design can indicate a person's wealth and social position, as reflected in the quality of material or the complexity of the workmanship used to make shoes. Shoes can show membership in a particular group, like cowboy boots or motorcycle boots. High heels make a social statement, as do a sensible pair of Oxfords. Celebrities are known for the number of pairs they own.

What one does with shoes also makes a statement. For example throwing shoes at someone is an insult.

What about Jews and shoes? The Song of Songs 7:2 reads, "How beautiful are thy feet in sandals." Shoes were considered to be so important that Rabbi Akiva instructed his son Joshua not to go barefoot. They were signs of sensuousness, comfort, luxury and pleasure.

The Talmud (Shabbat 129a) declares: "A person should sell the roof beams of his house to buy shoes for his feet."

According to the Code of Jewish law (the Shulchan Aruch), when putting on shoes, the right shoe goes on first. When tying shoes. the left shoe is tied first. When shoes are taken off, the left shoe comes off first. This custom is based on the belief that the right is more important than the left. Therefore, the right foot should not remain uncovered while the left is covered. Shoes should be tied from the left since knotted teffilin is worn on the left arm.

Since the tying of shoes is a reminder of the tying of teffilin, for those who are left handed, and who place the teffilin on their right arm, the right shoe should be tied first rather than the left, so that the tying of shoes matches the tying of teffilin.

There are times in Jewish life when the wearing of shoes is forbidden. When the priestly blessing is given in traditional synagogues, the kohanim remove their shoes outside the sanctuary before their hands are washed by the Levites and before giving the priestly blessing. Removing the shoes avoids the possibility of embarrassment in the event that one of the kohanim has a torn shoe lace and remains behind to tie his shoes while his brethren are blessing the congregation.

There is also a custom amongst certain chassidic groups to remove their (leather) shoes before approaching the gravesite of a holy person. This tradition goes back to the command to Moses when he approached the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:5), "Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground"

On the historic day of mourning, Tisha b'Av, Jews are prohibited from wearing leather shoes. The same prohibition applies on Yom Kippur to show remorse and penance.

In the Book of Isaiah (20:2), Isaiah is commanded to remove his sandals as a sign of mourning. Shoes also play a part in the mourning period after a death. During the period of shiva, the seven days of mourning, leather shoes may not be worn. In Talmudic times, both the pall bearers and the mourners went barefoot.

If the support of a leather shoe is necessary for medical reasons, the preservation of health overrules the prohibition. If someone has to leave the house, leather shoes may be worn, but they should be removed when the person returns home for shiva. If the mourner is going to synagogue for services during shiva, leather may also be worn, though the shoes should be removed at the synagogue.

In all of these exceptions, an unusual practice is required. When the wearing of leather is permitted, a little earth or pebble is placed in the shoes to remind the wearer that they are in mourning.

The question of shoes also arises in Jewish burials. The body of the deceased may be wearing shoes, but only if the shoes are made of linen or cotton. Most Jews are buried in a shroud which covers the feet, so the issue never arises.

Of all the Jewish customs involving shoes, the most unusual and fascinating is that of the laws of halitzah. Going back to Deuteronomy (25:5-9), when a married man dies childless, leaving an unmarried brother, the brother is obligated to marry his widowed sister-in-law. The rationale for what was called a levirate marriage was to continue the name, the assets and the soul of the deceased brother through the subsequent marriage and children.

Reference to this practice is also found in the Book of Ruth 3:4 when Naomi instructs Ruth to go to the granary at night, lie next to Boaz and to uncover his feet.

The brother could also opt to release her to marry someone else. This is the ceremony of halitzah. The widow and her brother-in-law appear before a rabbinical court, a beth din, consisting of five members. The brother-in-law wears on his right foot what is known as the halitzah shoe. This special shoe is made from the skin of a kosher animal and consists of two pieces sown together with leather threads. It must not contain metal and is designed like a moccasin with long straps.

The widow declares that her brother-in-law refuses to marry her, and he confirms it as directed in Deuteronomy (25:7 and 9). She then places her left hand on his calf, undoes the laces with her right hand, removes the shoe from his foot, throws it to the ground, and spits on the ground in front of him. The beth din then recites the formula releasing all obligations.

The shoe is a symbol of the transaction. This tradition is part of the color and romance of Jewish tradition and life.

It is also part of the spiritual tradition. The Kabbalists describe the body as "the shoe of the soul." Just as shoes protect feet from the dirt, so too does the soul require the body as a shoe to protect it during its journey in the physical world.