Sneakers, sandals and slippers in the synagogue, oh my! Why on this holiest of days is our footwear so casual?

Well, in the book of Leviticus, the Torah commands us to “afflict” ourselves on Yom Kippur. Why? Two reasons:

  1. On this day, when our connection to G‑d is bared, we are compared to angels, who have no physical needs.
  2. We afflict ourselves to demonstrate the extent of our regret for our past misdeeds.

The rabbis determined that “affliction” means that we are to deny ourselves certain luxuries, including wearing leather footwear. Leather shoes were considered a comfort until recent times, when it became possible to manufacture comfortable shoes of other materials.

(We also afflict ourselves on Tishah B’Av, when we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temples. Leather footwear is not worn on that day either.)

On a mystical level, wearing leather is reminiscent of the primordial sin committed by Adam and Eve, after which G‑d outfitted them in garments made of skins (Genesis 3:21). On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we don’t want to do anything that recalls this sin. (Similarly, we also refrain from wearing gold on Yom Kippur, so as not to recall the sin of the Golden Calf.)

So, there is no “custom” to wear sneakers; any synthetic shoe will do. In fact, your sneakers may be made of leather, so check the materials before you wear them on Yom Kippur.

Click here to visit our comprehensive Yom Kippur section.

Best wishes for a sweet new year,

Chani Benjaminson,