Wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur - is it a Minhag or a strict Jewish law?
Wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur is one of the 5 prohibitions of the day. Just as a reminder, the 5 prohibitions are: (1) Eating and drinking, (2) washing or (3) anointing the body, (4) having marital relations and (5) wearing leather shoes. This is a strict prohibition which is connected to the verse in the Torah that says: On the 10th of Tishri (Vaikra 23:27) or “you shall deprive yourself”, which means, refraining from the most basic physical needs, comforts, or pleasures for a day. And not wearing leather shoes is one of these prohibitions. The Torah did not command us to be barefoot, but just to avoid wearing shoes that are made of leather. This prohibition is similar for men and women. Moreover, unlike other Yom Kippur’s prohibitions, such as fasting, the prohibition of wearing leather shoes should be taught to children as well, even when they are still not at the age of fasting.
If it is such an important issue, how come many people in our community do not know about this?
The Jews in Iran, or at certain times in Syria or Morocco, did not live in a totally open and respectful society. They were, in the best case, tolerated by the local population, and they had to be very discreet in what they did. Many times it is difficult to determine if certain uses in respect to religious customs
are a Minhag or they were a consequence of living under completely different circumstances. For example, I had wondered in the past why my grandmother, who came from a very traditional family from Syria, did not know about Tebilat Kelim (immersing the utensils in the Mikveh before using them). And I remember that when I asked her this question she resented it, implying that if Tebilat Kelim would have been such an important Mitzvah, she should have known about it. She hinted that I was trying to bring new Minhagim or new Mitzvot, etc. Later on, I found out, that in Damascus some Jews were so poor that in their lifetime, they never got to buy new utensils or new tableware. They used what they had inherited from their own parents, so there was never an opportunity for them to practice Tebilat Kelim. It was not because they did not know about it, but because they did not have to. Since then, I have become more cautious when classifying certain traditions. Some times it is as a real Minhag which should be kept and sometimes, the reason they did not do certain things in the past was a consequence of living in a totally different scenario. Mr. Nassim Bassalian told me than in Iran and in many other Muslim countries, snickers or other fabric shoes were not available many years ago and even when available it did not look good for a respectable person to be walking with those fabric shoes. I also heard that on Tisha beAb and Yom Kippur many people wear leather shoes to walk to Kanissah. Then, at Kanissah, they would leave the shoes outside and walk inside barefoot, where there were comfortable carpets. Mr. Nassim Bassalian told me that a few people in Teheran wore slippers or even socks, but most people did not really know the importance of it.
Our circumstances today, BH, are completely different:
1. We live in total freedom to practice our religion openly.
2. Snickers, of all footwear, are the most common, popular and accessible footwear.