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

A Pair of Shoes

“We will buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes.”

Amos 8:6

 

 

W. H. Auden once wrote, “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.” I find this hard to accept. I really hope our poet had good friends. Not everyone in the world is out to exploit others. The Bible understood that some people were naturally susceptible to exploitation and warned us lest we begin to think too much like Auden and not enough like Amos.

Our verse above is often twinned with another from Amos: “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (2:6) One contemporary Israeli commentary observes that this is the price of injustice. Those in positions of power and authority will have become so corrupt and extortionist that in order to live under their leadership, the poor will sell themselves for basic necessities.

Another interpreter believes that shoes are an inexpensive, insignificant item and that the choice of this metaphor illustrates the depth of a corrupt society. Another posits the exact opposite.  Most of the poor go barefoot because shoes are expensive; corrupt leaders will sell out the poor to keep themselves in shoes. Yet other commentaries understand this verse more literally. Shoes were often used in business or other deals as a sign of transaction – this is true in the rejection of Levirate marriage as described in the book of Ruth. Rashi sees shoes as representative of land purchase, perhaps because land was often measured by footfalls.

Rashi translates this term not as shoe but as a reference to a “locked door” since the two words have a common Hebrew root. The rich would buy up land from the poor, locking away real estate for themselves and taking away the little security that a needy person might have.

There is a very old midrash on this expression that states that when his brothers sold Joseph, they used the money to purchase shoes for themselves. In essence, they were benefitting personally from the sale of another human being. While this purchase never makes an actual appearance in the Bible, Genesis does tell us that after Joseph’s brothers threw him in a pit, they sat down to eat lunch. This small detail tells us everything we need to know about their callousness at that moment. Subsequently, the expression “to sell someone for a pair of shoes” is used to capture particularly harsh and cutting behavior that lacks compassion and humanity.

There is a Hasidic story that I have always loved and think of sometimes in the face of rejection. A young yeshiva student who was dirt poor went door-to-door in his village to ask for a few dollars to buy himself a pair of shoes. The young man was considered a prodigy but still his feet were bare. He approached the door of the village’s most wealthy family only to have the door slammed in his face. He was utterly humiliated. Years passed and the young scholar achieved great fame and was scheduled to speak in the village of his old yeshiva. The wealthy man who ignored his plea years earlier approached him and offered to cover the cost of publishing the scholar’s first book. In earnest, the prodigy looked him straight in the eye and rejected his offer with these words: “No thank you. But there was a time when you could have had me for a pair of shoes…”

            Amos understood that compassion must be a greater driver in creating a just society than self-interest. The fact that you can buy someone for a pair of shoes does not mean that you should. Those who have that kind of power over others – be it financial or emotional - must temper it with grace. Kindness is the measure of a good society.

 

Shabbat Shalom