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Parashat Hashavuah: Tetzaveh

“And these are the garments that they shall make: a choshen, an ephod, a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron and for his sons to serve Me” Exodus 28:4

    The following 40 verses of this chapter go on to command the fashioning of the clothing of the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) in the utmost detail; from the order of the bells and pomegranates that would decorate the hem of his robe, to the exact colour of blue thread to be used. No detail is too small to be overlooked and yet, among all of his clothing including a head gear and belt, the Torah fails to mention what he should be wearing on his feet.

    Did the Torah overlook the shoes, letting the Cohen figure out for himself what he wanted to wear, or was there more to the omission than independent sartorial choice? From Maimonides’s Mishnah Torah (volume eight), we read that during the Second Temple period, the priests were constantly standing barefoot and that worshippers at the Temple had to remove their shoes before entering the holy precinct on Temple Mount. 

    From these and many more examples it would be fair to conclude that the Cohen wore no shoes while serving at the Temple. But why? Surely it would have been infinitely more comfortable to serve God without fear of stubbing one’s toe? 

    In looking through the Torah for clues, we come across many examples of people who removed their shoes — and each of these examples communicates a message of loss, powerlessness or servitude.  Among other peoples of the Near East at the time, we learn that one of the first indignities a captured slave would suffer would be to have his sandals taken from him. 

    Conversely, a shod foot in Egypt would have been a symbol communicating political dominance. In Tutankhamun’s grave, a ceremonial pair of sandals was found that would have been synonymous with a crown. 

    In short, a shoe signifies sovereignty, authority and dominion, while a bare foot signifies relinquishment, servitude and devotion. Nowhere is the symbolic power of dress to communicate ideology more evident than in the ritual of Israel’s priesthood. So while the Cohen serves the people dressed to the nines, he approaches God vulnerable, barefoot. 

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