GIVING AWAY THE CLOTHES AND THE SHOES OF THE DEAD
A woman wanted to give away the clothes of her deceased relative, but she hesitated to do so because she was told it may not be done and that it is especially forbidden to give away the shoes of the dead. (From Rabbi Monte Syme, Detroit, Michigan)
The Shulchan Aruch (in Yore Deah 349) discusses what possessions of the dead (i.e., on the body of the dead) may and may not be kept by the living. It speaks there of those things that are attached to the body of the dead as decorations (ornaments), a wig, et cetera. Isserles explains that only such things as are actually tied to the dead body are forbidden, but such objects as rings, et cetera, may be taken off and used. The hair itself, for example, would be forbidden. As for the various articles of the dead (shrouds, et cetera), the rule is given clearly by Maharil in his Responsum #54. He was asked whether the sheets and the boards used in washing the dead are forbidden to be used for anyone else, and he says that only such things are forbidden to the living as were actually intended to be buried with the dead person. Hence it is clear that his clothes may be given away or otherwise used.
However, the shoes do constitute a somewhat different case. There is a fairly widespread custom not to use the shoes of the dead. This is found in Sefer Chasidim (#1544), where many of these folk customs are mentioned. There, speaking of charity, it is said that if a man is given the shoes of the dead, he should not give them away to a poor man as charity because of danger. This statement in Sefer Chasidim is frequently discussed; thus, Wolf Leiter in “Bays Dovid” (#31), Jehudah Lev Zirelsohn in “Atzeh Ha-Levonon” (#46), and also Greenwald (“Kol Bo Al Avelus,” p. 58). Not one of these Orthodox authorities considers this custom well founded. In fact, Zirelsohn considers it wrong to waste the shoes belonging to the dead (It is a crime to destroy property [Bal Tashchis]), and he is astonished at the statement in Sefer Chasidim. He says it cannot be an actual prohibition. Such a prohibition is not mentioned in any of the codes. Both he and Leiter come independently to the conclusion that the statement in Sefer Chasidim is based upon a scribal error. Instead of mayss (a dead man), the original must have read maysa, which refers to a dead cow, the use of whose leather is discussed in the Talmud, Chullin 94a. There we are told it is forbidden to sell a person the leather of a dead cow as if it were the leather of a healthy cow that has been slaughtered; and Rashi explains that the leather from an animal that has died is inferior leather and that a deception is involved when shoes made of that inferior leather are sold.
Zirelsohn ends by saying that there is no prohibition against giving away the shoes of the dead, and so does Greenwald. However, some of the authorities, discussing the opinion of Sefer Chasidim that there is “danger” in giving away such shoes, speak of the possible danger in case the dead died of a contagious disease (assuming for the moment that the statement in Sefer Chasidim actually refers to the human dead at all). Even so, Zirelsohn says, if the man died of something contagious, the prohibition would apply only to the shoes in which he actually died.
All in all, there is a folk custom about the shoes of the dead, but it seems to be based upon an error, and certainly, as such, an Orthodox authority such as Zirelsohn says, it has no legal weight.