Do you like to wear shoes?

Shoes are worn on our lowest extremities. They should therefore be furthermost removed from our minds.

Moreover, we essentially tread and step all over our shoes.

Yet most people own more than one pair of shoes. For many women, it may even be more than a few pairs. Our feet require all kinds of protection for different situations.

Is wearing shoes in a holy location degrading, yet not degrading everywhere else?

And then there is the decorative factor. We wear shoes for different occasions and for different times, and we find ourselves marking those occasions through our clothing, including our shoes.

When arriving back home, though, many prefer not to walk around with those same shoes they may have been happy to display out in public. Shoes tend to make many feel restricted or confined.

Interestingly, according to Jewish law and tradition, it is preferable that a person walk around with some separation between the foot and the ground. Even someone who is required by Jewish law not to wear leather shoes—such as a mourner, heaven forbid—should still wear a pair of socks, slippers, or something similar. The importance of wearing shoes is best recorded in the Talmud (Shabbat 129a): “One should always sell even the beams of his house (if necessary) to buy shoes for his feet.” It is degrading, explain the commentaries, for a person to walk barefoot in public.

It was not so, however, when one was present in the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem. Everyone present was required to remove their shoes. A place of such holiness obligated its visitors to display their reverence by removing shoes.

So, what is it? Is wearing shoes in a holy location degrading, yet not degrading everywhere else?

The solution lies in an interesting detail of Moses’ dialogue with the Almighty during his famous encounter at the burning bush on Mount Sinai. Before anything was discussed, Moses was commanded, “Take your shoes off your feet, because the place upon which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

A similar biblical incident occurs in Joshua 5:15. An angel visits Joshua, and instructs him to remove his shoes since the ground is holy.

Clearly, when the ground is considered holy, wearing shoes is a sign of disrespect. In all other circumstances, however, going barefoot is a sign of disrespect.

A separation is necessary as a reminder to constantly be detached from “earthliness”

And the difference is in essence the ground, the earth upon which we tread. Shoes provide a separation between a human being and the earth. Spiritually, a separation is necessary as a reminder to constantly be detached from “earthliness.”

Our head, the seat of our intellect and our nerve center, remains high above the ground. As humans, our heads do not face the ground either, unlike most animals.

The lower extremities, on the other hand, are naturally close to the earth. Our lower dimensions may be dangerously close to the earth and its earthliness message. Shoes, or similar forms of separation, are therefore placed upon the lowest part of ourselves, maintaining a constant source of awareness of the danger lurking below: earthliness.

When in a holy environment, however, there is no need to separate between mankind and earth. It is in fact required that a person go barefoot, so as not to create any barrier or separation from something holy.

The wearing of shoes also plays a role in the exodus from Egypt. The Jewish people were then required to be ready to leave, including having “shoes on your feet” (Exodus 12:11). Similarly, in the messianic prophecy it is stated that the Almighty “will cause people to cross over (the Euphrates River) in shoes” (Isaiah 11:15).

In both exoduses—from Egypt and from the current state of exile—the idea of separation is emphasized. The exodus from Egypt and the freedom provided to us were for the purpose of traveling to Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments and the Torah (Exodus 3:12). The Almighty told Moses to remove his shoes, for this place, Mount Sinai, was a holy location. It was the focus, the purpose, of the exodus from Egypt. It was as though the Almighty was saying: Until all of you return here, keep those shoes on. Keep yourselves separated from worldliness and earthliness while your mind is on the goal: the Torah.

Similarly, as the world becomes that much closer to the time of the final redemption, heralded by the messianic revelation, the best way for us to prepare is by reminding ourselves about that separation from earthliness, focusing instead on the Torah and its mandate.

May we very soon experience the time when we can “kick off our shoes” in order to experience the ultimate holiness. May it be speedily in our days.