Black Shoes

I am in mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem...
— BT Bava Kamma 59b

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.

Fresco from Pompeii depicting two upper-class Romans wearing black shoes. From the Koren Talmud,  Bava Kamma  59b

Fresco from Pompeii depicting two upper-class Romans wearing black shoes. From the Koren Talmud, Bava Kamma 59b

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.

Shabbat Shalom

Frailty, Thy Name is Woman

When Hamlet denounced his mother for her quick re-marriage, he made a sweeping statement about 50% of the population: “Frailty thy name is woman.” He considered his mother weak-willed and spineless, but for Hamlet this is apparently a condition of all women.  That women were regarded as pitiable and vulnerable was also an important literary conceit for the biblical prophet Jeremiah, prophet of doom and exile. For him frailty is more about compassion than about fickleness.

It was Jeremiah who saw the destruction of the first Temple and shared his torments in the anguished and lyrical five chapters of The Book of Lamentations. If it is hard to imagine such a task, picture someone the afternoon of 9/11, trying to describe the wreckage before him as an act of witness to those who would never see it. Today, our beautiful Jerusalem is once again filled with people and embellished in splendor. As the Sages once said, “Ten measures of beauty were given to the world. Nine were given to Jerusalem.” But we no longer have a centralized place to pray as a community, a place to unburden ourselves and seek atonement or share our deepest spiritual yearnings and longings. What we do have is a first-hand recollection. Each year, we honor Jeremiah’s memory and the way that he tried to personalize this event and its scars.

Throughout the book, Jeremiah uses images of frail and disconsolate women to help readers after his death imagine what it was like to see Jerusalem and its holy Temple in ruins. With the coming approach of Tisha B’Av - the ninth day of Av – when we recite this dirge as a community, we will do a close reading of the first chapter of Lamentations to see how Jeremiah evokes pathos through the image of a fallen woman.

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place. All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress [1:1-3].

Jerusalem is a widow lying in empty streets that were once full, mourning the full life that was once hers. Jerusalem is a queen whose crown has toppled and whose authority has been overturned. Jerusalem is not only a powerless royal; she is now a slave to others who once held her in high regard. Her royalty is gone. Jerusalem is humiliated. She has no friends. She has no rest. Like a woman facing her tormentors, she runs without direction, led into narrow straights that prevent escape.

The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed feasts. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her maidens grieve, and she is in bitter anguish. Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease. The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins. Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe [1:4-5]

Even the streets of Jerusalem grieve. They, too, were once full of spiritual pilgrims, ascending to Jerusalem to gain atonement, to offer thanksgiving, to celebrate the holidays in the presence of community. Now there is no one at her once bustling gates. There is no cause for celebration or feasting. The Temple’s employees – its priests – have nothing to do but sigh. Jerusalem is both a young maiden mourning for a future she will never have and a mother whose children have been violently snatched from her. She will wait in desperation for her children to return from exile. In the ashes of her destroyed city, she realizes they may never return.

All the splendor has departed from the Daughter of Zion. Her princes are like deer that find no pasture; in weakness they have fled before the pursuer. In the days of her affliction and wandering Jerusalem remembers all the treasures that were hers in days of old…Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. All who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns away. Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her [1: 6-9].

Like an old, wrinkled woman in front of a mirror, Zion sees that her splendor is gone – that her enemies made a grab for her treasures and left her in rags. But she has brought much of this upon herself. Like a woman who stains her garments with her own blood, she sits undignified in her filth, not thinking about the consequences of her actions until she can no longer run away from them.

This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit. My children are destitute because the enemy has prevailed. Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her. The Lord has decreed for Jacob that his neighbors become his foes; Jerusalem has become an unclean thing among them [1:16-17].

Enemies mock her. They, too, see her filth and comment on her loss of pride in the world. In pain, she realizes that she has no one. She raises her hands for help and solace, but no one lifts her up. She is left simply to weep alone. Frailty, thy name is woman.

Shabbat Shalom