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Does God Care About Shoes?

In this week’s Talmud study, Jewishness is not just moral and theological matters. It is a way of life.

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Masaaki Miyara/Flickr)
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Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

As I read the Talmud, I often wonder how the directives of the rabbis were actually applied in daily Jewish life. In theory, there is a law governing practically everything a Jew might do, from praying to dressing to going to the bathroom. In practice, it seems it would be impossible to remember all of these rules, let alone follow them. This week’s Daf Yomi reading offered a kind of reductio ad absurdum of this tendency, when the rabbis laid down the law about which shoe you are supposed to put on first in the morning.

Naturally, there are various opinions on the subject. According to Rabbi Yochanan, “As tefillin, so shoes”: Just as tefillin are worn on the left arm, so you should put on the left shoe first. But there is also a baraita that holds the opposite: “When a person puts on his shoes, he puts on his right shoe and after this he puts on his left shoe.” Given the conflict, the law is that either procedure is acceptable. But, Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak insists, “One who fears Heaven can fulfill both directives.” How? By following the example of Mar son of Rabana: “He would put on his right shoe, but not tie it; and then he would put on his left shoe and tie it; and then he would tie his right shoe.” Thus Mar could say that, in a way, each shoe was put on before the other.

It is a clever solution to the problem. But does it really have to be a problem in the first place? Does God care which shoe goes on first? My instinct is to say no. Any God I can imagine believing in would be indifferent to such a question, because it has no moral implications. Living in a modern, secular society, we tend to assume that life is made up of a large neutral sphere in which we can do whatever we see fit, and a more restricted religious sphere that deals with questions of right and wrong, good and evil.

This kind of dualism, however, is totally foreign to the rabbis. For them, Jewishness is not something that comes into play only in moral and theological matters. It is an entire way of life in which there is nothing however trivial that does not participate in Jewishness. What is frightening about this vision is the degree of mindfulness and intentionality it requires. Imagine having to worry about offending God and breaking the law every waking minute, even when it came to tying your shoes: Would this not breed a kind of self-consciousness that can only be called neurotic? It is all too easy for me to imagine the kinds of behaviors encouraged by the Talmud—all that counting and measuring—turning into full-blown obsession-compulsion.

The urgency of correct legal procedure helps to explain one of the most interesting moments in this week’s reading, in Shabbat 63a. The rabbis offer a series of aphorisms about the virtues of Torah study, in which they emphasize that it must be undertaken in the proper spirit. The blessings of Torah knowledge are forfeited if the scholar is arrogant, or if he studies for ulterior motives like personal advancement. It is rather a shock, then, when Rabbi Abba goes on to say: “Even if a Torah scholar exacts revenge and bears a grudge like a serpent, gird him to your loins; however, even if an unlearned man is pious, do not dwell in his neighborhood.”

At first this seems counter-intuitive: How can a petty and vengeful scholar be superior to a good but ignorant man? Yet on a second reading, I realized that this is not really what the passage claims. Abba is not telling us that a bad scholar is a better person, only that he is more valuable to the community. And that is because, despite his personal faults, the scholar is able to teach Jews the exact details of the conduct expected from them. He would know which shoe to put on first. Since God expects us to perform all such actions rightly, we urgently need a scholar who can tell us what right conduct means, even if his own character leaves something to be desired. In the same way, you would rather learn chemistry from a mean chemist than a kind janitor.

In Chapter 6 of Tractate Shabbat, the rules the rabbis teach have to do with what kinds of personal adornments can be worn on Shabbat. In the previous chapter, dealing with animals, the rule of thumb was that only functional items, like collars and halters, could be worn; ornaments were considered burdens that animals can’t carry on Shabbat. With people, the standard is different. For us, ornaments are allowed, so long as we actually wear them as ornaments. If we might be tempted to remove them from our clothes or body and carry them around, they are prohibited by the rabbis, so that we won’t come to violate the ban on carrying and transferring objects.

In detailing what sorts of things are allowed and forbidden, the rabbis offer an interesting sidelight onto Talmudic-era fashion and beauty customs, especially for women. In addition to rings for the finger, ear, and nose, we hear of a needle with a bar of gold on one end, which is used to part the hair; the istema, “a scarf worn for holding back stray hairs”; and the katla, a kind of bib whose strings were drawn tight around the neck, in order to make a woman appear fleshier (“for it is agreeable to her that she appear a well-fleshed woman”). More troubling are the garters with leg chains known as kevalim. By chaining a woman’s legs together, this item prevented her from taking excessively long strides, which might cause “the hymenal membranes to fall out.” To combat bad breath or soothe a bad tooth, a woman might suck on a peppercorn, ginger, or cinnamon; as a deodorant, she could carry a bundle of spices.

There are two reasons, the rabbis argue, that a woman might be tempted to remove one of these ornaments on Shabbat: if she needs to take it off to immerse herself in the mikveh, or if she wants to show it to a friend. Thus the rabbis forbid any jewelry or hair decorations that fall into these categories. “Woolen strands and linen strands” woven into the hair are forbidden, since these would have to come off in the mikveh. So is an item called a “city of gold,” which is mentioned in the Mishnah. But as often happens, the passage of centuries has left the Amoraim uncertain as to just what the Mishnah is referring to. It falls to Rabbah bar bar Chanah to explain that a “city of gold” is a golden ornament engraved with a picture of Jerusalem, “like the one Rabbi Akiva fashioned for his wife.”

Rabbi Eliezer, however, dissents from the Mishnah, ruling that a woman can go out on Shabbat with a city of gold. His reasoning tells us something interesting about class distinctions in Talmudic times. “Who is accustomed to go out wearing a city of gold?” he asks. Only “a distinguished woman, and a distinguished woman is not likely to remove her ornaments and show them to others.” It is a hint that the pious elitism of the rabbis has a class and power dimension as well. (Remember their contempt for the am haaretz, in whom poverty goes along with impiety.)

Throughout, there is a certain tension in the Talmudic attitude toward women’s adornments. The rabbis never question a woman’s right to beautify herself. On the contrary, in Shabbat 62b, Rava teaches that if a man can afford to buy adornments for his wife and refuses to, he will be cursed with poverty. Yet on the very same page, the rabbis interpret a verse from Isaiah that blasts female vanity. If women “walk with erect posture,” or “fill their eyes with makeup and beckon,” or use perfume, the rabbis promise them a series of cruel bodily punishments: decay, bruises, baldness, sores, lesions, and excessive pubic hair (“their openings became like a forest”).

Later on, in Shabbat 64b, Rav Sheishet teaches that “whoever gazes at the little finger of a woman is like one who gazes at the place of her nakedness.” Yet what is the purpose of adornments if not to attract gazes? There is in these discussions a combination of worldliness and Puritanism that is hard to make sense of. Perhaps the rabbis distinguished between adornments like the city of gold, which was primarily a display of wealth and status, and makeup and perfume, which were too physically alluring. What is clear is that in patriarchal cultures, the line women have to walk has always been a narrow and perilous one.


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So all you khokhims out there–are you going to defend this Talmud passage too???
Sounds wierd and offensive to me, but what do I know?

    Are you going to stop reading Hamlet because it deals with murder and incest?

      Hamlet has a plot. It is literature. The Talmud has no plot and is supposed to teach how to act.
      Big difference.

        The Talmud is literature too. Should we only read literature that has a plot and doesn’t teach how to act?

          Do you want to talk about what shoe to put on first? If so, then this page of the Talmud is for you.

          Mindfulness is a virtue. To cross-pollinate a little, in Buddhist teachings, the way to enlightenment begins precisely with focusing on mundane activities.

          It seems to me that there are far worse things than becoming aware of how and why we perform everyday, apparently unimportant activities, and then infusing those casual actions with divine intention.

          Even if you disagree, why the vehemence?

          Why try to spoil what others may love?

          I sense much hostility and defensiveness in your posts. It seems to me that you have not come here to open yourself to different perspectives and try new things, but to calcify your previous prejudices.

          If you hated the food at a certain restaurant, would you continue to return and yell at all the other patrons? Would you stand outside and picket the joint?

          Kirsch also believes that God does not care about shoes.

          Apparently you do.

          When I read something that makes sense, I will say so.

          I am still waiting.

          YOu seem to accept everything uncritically.

          ZPinchas says:

          The essential point is that even the smallest and most seemingly mundane of actions can be elevated to a religiously significant act. Jews strive to serve God at all times and in all ways possible.

          And what does God provide in return?

          ZPinchas says:

          The action is an earthly reward in and of itself! I ask, is the physical gratification offered by–say–the most delicious meal or relaxing massage imaginable ultimately even comparable to the intellectual satisfaction of a profound conceptual epiphany? Or the unbridled joy shared by husband and wife upon beholding the human life they have brought into this world through the bonds of love?
          Indeed, the concept of reward and punishment is a central tenet of Judaism. But one ought to be mindful of the fact that while anticipation of reward or fear of punishment may constitute a legitimate impetus for observance of Jewish law, it is by no means ideal. In fact, within the traditional Jewish corpus, it is regarded as the “lowest” and most unsophisticated reason for behaving in accordance with the will of God.

          The nicest thing one can say about God is that He does not exist.

          If He does, he has a lot of explaining to do.

          If he lived on earth, people would throw rocks through his windows.

Binyamin Weinreich says:

“It is all too easy for me to imagine the kinds
of behaviors encouraged by the Talmud—all that counting and
measuring—turning into full-blown obsession-compulsion.”

Ever been to a Yeshivish Pesach Seder?


(For background purposes: I was raised Orthodox, but am no longer observant.)

When this series started, I found it intriguing. What might a literary critic bring to the Talmud? What might he get out of dealing with a work that has entirely different premises and approaches than what he’s used to? But it’s devolved into a sort of ahistorical reading, imagining a world in which the oral tradition did not exist, the Mishnah was not an intentionally cryptic set of notes, and the Rabbis were just making everything up as they went along.

Which was bad enough, but Adam’s just taken the next step—perhaps an inevitable one, in hindsight—which is imagining himself in a world in which Orthodox Jews don’t exist:

“As I read the Talmud, I often wonder how the directives of the rabbis were actually applied in daily Jewish life. In theory, there is a law governing practically everything a Jew might do, from praying to dressing to going to the bathroom. In practice, it seems it would be impossible to remember all of these rules, let alone follow them.”

In practice, Adam could find out the answers to this quite easily by just going across town and talking to people. Every schoolchild in yeshiva knows that you put your right shoe on first, then your left, then tie your left shoe, then your right. (Unless you’re left-handed, in which case you tie the right shoe first.) Yes, there are lots of rules, but remembering and following them is not actually that hard.

I could kind of sort of understand a willfully oblivious academic somewhere where there isn’t even a Chabad House musing about the implications of long-dead theoretical people with “an entire way of life in which there is nothing however trivial that does not participate in Jewishness.” But a columnist in Tablet magazine claiming to be unaware of the frum world, and that they do in fact practice all this stuff? And not considering that maybe instead of writing condescending speculations about what they might be like, he could try talking to them? Really?

I’m out.

    Why opt out when you can share your experiences and discover others’ perspectives? Consider this channel a place to stop, read, think, comment, and exchange views with others. My view on a win-win situation. The rabbis argued, even insulted each other yet stayed in the conversation. And for their persistence, generations of learners have inherited a treasure trove over which we continue to study,probe, discuss, and even (or especially) to argue.

Mark Levine says:

The point is to try to connect every moment of your life to God, making everything you do significant, sanctifying your whole life. So, you try to find a way to have the service of God in mind even while tying your shoes. That’s really the point.

Everyone “knows” Judaism passes thru the mother, right?

Then why is it that not a single rabbi has even attempted to
answer this

$10,000 Torah Challenge !!! ???

Can You Prove from the Torah that Judaism Does Indeed Pass
Thru the Mother ?

Another Jew appointed to influence by President “the muslim” Obama…

Let’s open the conversation about taking back the concession to print US currency from the privately held Federal (not) Reserve (none) and returning the creation of our currency–debt free–to the US Treasury.

Any chance an orthodox Jew will take ending the Fed (repealing the 1913 Federal Reserve Act) into consideration?

How does control of creation of money assist in promoting domestic and foreign policy agendas? Who are the ‘first spenders’ of late who get their hands on the newly created US dollars?

How does being a ‘first spender’ (QE1, 2 bailout recipients) relate to having connections in high (Jewish) places?

Could there be a conspiracy here to support the Jewish state and Jewish interests over the interests of the other 98% of the US population?

Basil Yacoub says:

This is as ridiculous as Muslim scholars suggest to which to step in first your right foot or left foot?


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Does God Care About Shoes?

In this week’s Talmud study, Jewishness is not just moral and theological matters. It is a way of life.