SHOES FOR THE DEAD
When people bring to the undertaker’s establishment the clothes in which the body is to be dressed for burial, they are always careful not to bring shoes. They seem to take it as a fixed rule or custom that the dead must be buried without shoes. What is the basis for the custom, or is it more than merely a custom? Is it an established law? (From Louis J. Freehof, San Francisco, California)
The fact that the people bring clothes from home for the dead to be dressed in for burial indicates that their relative is to be buried in modern clothes and not in the traditional shrouds (tachrichim). This is, of course, contrary to Jewish custom; and the question comes up in the law frequently as to whether it may not be permitted to disturb the dead by reopening the grave, in case he was not buried with the entire set of shrouds (see the discussion of this matter in Greenwald, “Kolbo,” pp. 92-93). Evidently, then, these modern people do not object to the breach of Jewish law which requires shrouds, and yet would not think of burying the dead in shoes. Is it, perhaps, possible that there is a strong and a particular objection to burial in shoes, so that even those people who do not object to burial in modern clothes, which is clearly prohibited, nevertheless object to burial in shoes? What, if anything, is of special significance with regard to shoes and burial?
If there were some such special objection to shoes it would certainly be mentioned in some of the careful listings of the garments in which the dead are to be clad for burial. There are generally seven garments made of linen (in addition to the tallis, generally of wool) which are used for this purpose. As far as the Sephardic Jews are concerned, a complete and detailed listing of the shroud garments is found in “Ha-Kuntres Ha-Yechieli,” which deals especially with the customs of the Sephardim of Jerusalem. In the section Bes Olamim, chapter 5, the author gives in complete detail the method of shrouding the dead. Of course shoes are not among the seven garments, but no special mention is made objecting to them. For the Ashkenazim, “Chochmas Adam” (178 : 8) gives in detail the procedure and the garments for shrouding the dead, and no reference is made to shoes. One would think if there were a special objection to shoes some reference would be made in these sources. Of course, they did not bury in shoes, but they did not bury in any of the lifetime garments. All of them are objectionable, but there is no special objection to shoes.
On the other hand, there is positive evidence that in Talmudic times it was customary to bury people in shoes and, indeed, honored and respected people were so buried. In the Palestinian Talmud (Kelaim IX : 3 ) there is a discussion of the fact that the laws against mixed fabrics in garments, Kelaim, do not apply to the dead, since the dead “are free from the mitzvos.” There we are told that Rabbi Jeremiah gave instructions that he be buried in his clothes, with shoes on his feet and staff in hand. The reason for this is given: that he would be ready to arise at the moment of the resurrection, and the commentator expresses no surprise at this request of Jeremiah to have shoes put on his feet; on the contrary, he is praised for giving an evidence of his faith in the coming of the Messiah.
If later custom had developed a special objection to burial in shoes, one of the numerous commentators on the Jerusalem Talmud would have found Rabbi Jeremiah’s request a strange one and would have made some attempt to explain it away, but not one of the commentators has done so. Evidently they did not find it strange. In fact, the strict Orthodox authority Abraham Samuel Sofer (“K’sav Sofer,” Yore Deah 175), seeking to explain the custom in some localities of putting in the hands of the dead a stick or a staff (geplach)— concerning which his father, the great Moses Sofer, said he knew no explanation (see his responsum, Yore Deah 327)—proudly points to this passage in the Jerusalem Talmud as a proof of the origin of a symbolic staff in the hands of the dead. But he does not feel the need of making any comment on the fact that Rabbi Jeremiah asked to be buried in shoes.
Also, in the Babylonian Talmud, in Yevamoth 104c (top) where there is a discussion of what sort of shoes may not be used for the ceremony of chalitza, shoes of an old man made for this honor are mentioned, and Rashi explains that phrase to mean that the shoes are specially made as part of his shrouds. Therefore, it is clear that in Talmudic times not only was it permitted to be buried in shoes, but this seemed to be a particularly honored procedure.
As far as modern Jewish law is concerned, there is a special circumstance under which it is required in the Shulchan Aruch that the man be buried with shoes. If a man is found killed on the road, he must be buried in his garments and even with his shoes (Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 364 : 4). The purpose of burying him in his clothes was to bury the blood with him and Sabbetai Cohen (the Schach), in commenting upon this law, says that some blood may have run down into the shoes and hence (even if no blood is visible on the outside of them) his shoes should not be taken off. It is clear, at least from this, that there was no greater objection to shoes than to other clothes, so that if a murdered man was buried in his clothes, that meant the shoes also, even though no blood was visible on them.
Since clearly there is no specific objection to burial in shoes anywhere in the law, that I can find, and since you report that the question is fairly widespread, we must evidently look for nonlegal, especially folkloristic, explanations. The Sefer Chasidim, from the twelfth century, considers it objectionable to give away the shoes of the dead (454). This is understood by later commentators to be an objection to giving away the shoes in which the man died, possibly for fear of infection (see Wolf Leiter, “Bes David” 131). Nevertheless, the Sefer Chasidim, being full of this sort of folklore, would certainly have mentioned any objection to burial in shoes if there were a folkloristic reason for it.
Why, then, the objection to burial of the dead with shoes?
One possible guess may be that, according to Kabbalistic ideas, the worthy dead attain the status of the high priest, and the shrouds in some way correspond to the priestly garments. If, therefore, we dress the dead as priests this may explain the absence of shoes, since the priests went barefoot when they blessed the people. Likewise, it may be possible that since among the shrouds was a garment like the garment worn on Yom Kippur, and since on Yom Kip pur pious people went around barefoot, or at least only in slippers, they may have felt that it is proper for the dead to be shoeless. Another possibility is that since pious people sitting shiva do not wear shoes, or at best wear slippers, that, too, may have affected the belief that the dead should be shoeless. But all these are simply guesses.
The important fact is that in Talmudic times respected people were buried in shoes, and none of the later discussions of the shrouds mention any special objection to shoes. Of course, if people are buried in the traditional tachrichim they are buried without shoes, just as they are buried without coat and vest, the shoes simply not being one of the special, traditional shroud garments. But that people who no longer observe the old shroud customs and have no objection to street garments should nevertheless object to shoes can only be explained on the basis of some folk analogy with such other observances as the blessing of the priest, the worship on the Day of Atonement, or the sitting of shiva.