Marilyn Monroe once said, "Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world." I am not sure you can conquer the world with stilettos. They would certainly slow me down. But we are about to study a shoe story that gives the opposite message. Shoes can also be a sign that you are retreating from the world as it is, retreating out of loss.
As we approach Tisha B'Av this coming Sunday and recount immense tragedies across our history, I thought I would share a Talmudic story of intrigue about public mourning that may take us back in time. One day Rabbi Eliezer Ze'eira was caught wearing black shoes in the market of Nehardea, an ancient Babylonian town packed with scholars. I wasn't really sure what the offense was in this, but it must have been great because, as the Talmudic passage continues, officials from the Exilarch's house found him and asked him by what right he has to wear black shoes in public. His reply was terse and moving: "Because I am in mourning over Jerusalem."
We have many Talmudic passages that deal with the excessive mourning of scholars upon the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. The legal justification for amplifying mourning comes from a verse in Isaiah: "to appoint those that mourn for Zion" (61:3). There were sages who refused meat and wine since these were part of Temple rites. Even to this day, many weddings in Jerusalem feature only small bands because of the ban on live music after the Temple's ruin. The black shoes, however, triggered something very powerful in the eyes of these onlookers that was not positive.
We have a fresco from Pompeii that depicts upper-class Romans in black shoes (You can see this in the image above, taken from the Koren Bava Kamma). It seems that shoes were a statement of one's social class (think Manolo Blahnik today), and shoes with black straps were worn by Gentiles and not by Jews. Medieval Talmudic commentators suggest that Jews may have worn shoes with black soles and white straps or, a later commentary suggests that Romans wore glossy black shoes, and Jews customarily wore matte black shoes. Whatever the meaning of footwear was back then, it was enough to agitate these officials and prompt this odd conversation:
"They said to him, 'Are you a man of such importance to mourn Jerusalem (in public)?' They thought this presumptuous, and they brought him to prison to incarcerate him." Black shoes must have been a really big wardrobe malfunction for this rabbi. It turns out that mourning in public with this display of importance was a crime of sorts. Rabbi Eliezer turned to them and said that he was allowed to don black shoes for one reason: 'I am a great man (gavra rabba)." Modest, too.
In other words, Rabbi Eliezer was a person of note who felt that he could engage in this mourning ritual because of his scholarship. He did not regard it as a haughty behavior but as a significant one. The officials, however, were not backing down. "How do we know you are a scholar?" they asked. He responded with a test. "Either you ask me a matter of law or I will ask you a matter of law." The rabbi challenged them to come up with a question he couldn't answer, or he would ask one that showcased his knowledge. They allowed him to ask, and they discussed a matter of legal minutiae. He told them to confirm his answer with that of another great sage, Samuel. "Samuel is alive and his court exists," he claimed. Off they went to Samuel's court, where this exceptional scholar told the officials that Rabbi Eliezer was correct. When they heard this, they released Rabbi Eliezer, and the Talmud moves on to another legal issue.
People did not wear shoes in the Temple precincts but did need strong shoes for the pilgrimage to the Temple. Some sages interpreted the verse from Song of Songs, "How beautiful are your steps in sandals" [7:2] as a specific reference to the beauty of people marching together to this Jewish spiritual center, the heart of the ancient Israelites. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1796) understood Rabbi Eliezer's actions as a way of honoring these collective journeys to Jerusalem to pray and to live in community. Every time he looked down, he would have seen this reminder of where he wished his feet would take him.
Strange, no? In BT Ta'anit, we learn that one who mourns Jerusalem will one day rejoice in a rebuilt Jerusalem [30b]. Rabbi Eliezer felt that he needed to make a public statement about his loss; he was not behaving in what we might call self-righteousness, as the officials assumed. He may have intentionally gone to the market in his black shoes because it was a place congested with people, people who may have forgotten the significance of the Temple's loss. His footwear was not only a reminder for him. In public, it was a reminder for everyone who saw him that we walk always in a small dark shadow because of this loss.