Starting Off on the Right Foot
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Starting Off on the Right Foot*

That arch-heretic Baruch Spinoza did not believe that authentic religion has any legitimate business enacting laws for societies or individuals. He was consequently dismissive of the minute regulations that are so central to the law of Moses and to traditional Jewish life. In his “Theological Political Treatise” he argued that the Torah's laws do not really express the lessons of divine reason, but were intended to serve the more pragmatic objective of allowing Moses to govern an unruly people who did not yet have the political maturity to obey laws or authority because of their inherent moral value. The Torah therefore instilled in the Hebrews a mentality that bound them to the law through every single trivial action of their lives. “They were not allowed to  plough, to sow,  to reap, nor even to eat, to clothe themselves, to shave, to rejoice,  or  in  fact  to do anything whatever as they liked, but  were  bound  to  follow  the  directions  given in the law.” Whatever justification such a regimen might have had in the days of Moses, Spinoza insisted that it has no validity in a modern enlightened society where the Jews do not govern their own political state.

Judaism’s allegedly obsessive tendency to micromanage our behaviour is often epitomized in the cliché that the halakhah even dictates the proper sequence for putting on and lacing our shoes. And indeed, unlike many such stereotypes about traditional Judaism, this one happens to be quite true. The Shulḥan ‘Arukh instructs, as part of one’s morning routine:

“One should put on the right shoe first but not tie it yet; then put on the left shoe and tie it; then proceed to tie the right one.”

This ruling is based on a discussion in the Babylonian Talmud. The passage in question cites an assortment of different opinions as to the correct sequence—though nobody challenges the basic premise that the mode of putting on footwear falls within the legitimate scope of religious law. The Talmud text opens with a quotation from Rabbi Yoḥanan that the left shoe should take precedence, a rule that he derives from the case of tefillin where the normal practice (at least for right-handed persons) is to bind them to the left arm, based on a midrashic interpretation of the relevant scriptural text. However, Rabbi Yoḥanan’s position is juxtaposed to a teaching from an earlier tradition, that one should put on the right shoe before the left, which would be consistent with the usual tendency of Jewish law to favour the right side.

The Babylonian scholars in the Talmud disagreed about how to deal with this contradiction when formulating normative practice. Rav Joseph argued that since the matter was in dispute among respected authorities, either practice is acceptable and it makes no difference whether one begins with the right or left shoe. Similarly, Rav Ashi reported that his teacher Rav Kahana was not particular about the order.

Rav Joseph’s student Abayé was not happy with his teacher’s indecisive approach: after all, we do not really know how Rabbi Yoḥanan would have responded to the contradictory tradition cited in the Talmud. Normally, an earlier source overrides a later one, and there is reason to suppose that if he had been aware of the older tradition, he would have retracted his own ruling accordingly. On the other hand, maybe he did know of it, and yet he knowingly upheld his original view nonetheless; and perhaps his position was also founded on an earlier tradition that he had heard! If the earlier sages insisted so strongly on maintaining their respective positions, is it proper for us to treat them as if they were optional, or matters of subjective preference?

The Jerusalem Talmud preserved a different version of Rabbi Yoḥanan’s teaching. It states there that when his attendant Simeon bar Ba, a Babylonian immigrant, handed him his right sandal first in accordance with what he thought was the proper etiquette, the master chided him: “Babylonian, don’t act this way, since that is not how the early authorities used to conduct themselves. Rather, one should first put on the left shoe and afterwards the right.”  He goes on to explain that It is only an injured limb that normally gets shod first, and it is therefore considered “disrespectful” to a healthy right foot when we treat it as if it were infirm.

In the Babylonian Talmud, a solution to the dilemma of the contrary rulings was provided by Rav Nahman bar Isaac who described the personal custom of the “God-fearing” Mar son of Rabina, who would satisfy both opinions by putting on the right shoe first, but then tying the left lace first.

Rabbi Isaac ben Asher in the Tosafot commentary noted that it is indeed more appropriate that tying the laces should be the act that begins on the left, in that it was derived from the case of the tefillin where the essence of the precept consists of tying or binding.

The laissez-faire attitude favoured by Rav Joseph and Rav Kahana in the Talmud was evidently accepted by most of the early medieval codifiers of Jewish religious law, since the topic is skipped over entirely in the compilations of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, Maimonides and others.

The omission of the rule from early law codes is likely the reason why it attracted surprisingly little attention from among proponents of the Kabbalah. Normally, any topic that emphasizes the importance of left and right was ideal grist for the interpretative mills of the medieval kabbalists who asserted that spatial right and left correspond to the divine attributes of mercy and justice that define the metaphysical harmony of the universe, and which humans can influence by means of the correct performance of the commandments.

Nonetheless, in the early fourteenth century Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s Arba‘ah Ṭurim ruled in accordance with Mar son of Rabina’s custom: right shoe first, left lace first. A few generations later, an important kabbalistic compendium known as the Sefer Ha-Ḳanah, probably composed by a Byzantine author toward the end of the fourteenth century, devised an elaborate metaphor to show how paying careful attention to the respective sides of justice and mercy when donning footwear constitutes an effective symbolic preparation for appeasing the gatekeepers who control our access to the throne of the merciful supreme King.

In the late sixteenth century, the ruling of the Arba‘ah Ṭurim was incorporated into Rabbi Joseph Caro’s authoritative Shulḥan ‘Arukh thereby establishing it as the normative practice for subsequent generations.

With all due deference to Spinoza, punctilious observance of the rules governing the correct wearing and lacing of shoes was not confined to the blindly obedient or the starry-eyed kabbalists. Several scholars with decidedly rationalist inclinations found something of great value in these rules—if not for their own sake, then as instances of the Jewish genius for instilling religious meaning into all the diverse areas of human activity.

For example, Rabbi Menaḥem Meiri of Perpignan, Provence, who excelled at applying standards of clarity and logical precision to the elucidation of the Talmud, pointed out how this simple practice exemplifies the highest ideals of Torah living:

All the actions of Torah scholars are directed toward a single goal. Even when they are occupied with their material needs, their hearts are directed toward the worship of the Lord. You are aware that when putting on shoes, one recites the blessing “[Blessed is God] who has provided me with all my needs”... Similarly, when putting on shoes, we should put on the right one first in order to remind ourselves that in all matters it is preferable to keep “on the right side” and to honour one who walks in the right path.


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[*]
  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, August 28, 2015, p. 16.
  • For further reading:
    • Halbertal, Moshe. Between Torah and Wisdom: Rabbi Menachem Ha-Meiri and the Maimonidean Halakhists in Provence. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2000. [Hebrew]
    • Halivni, David. Sources and Traditions: A Source Critical Commentary on the Talmud. Vol. Tractate Shabbath. Jerusalem: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1982.
    • Krauss, Samuel. Talmudische Archäologie. Vol. 1. 3 vols. Schriften von Gesellschaft zur fürderrung der wissenschaft des Judentums. Grundriss der gesamtswissenschaft des Judentums. Leipzig: G. Fock, 1910.
    • Kushnir-Oron, M. The Sefer Ha-Peliʼah and the Sefer Ha-Kanah. Pirsume Ha-Midrasha Le-Limmudim Mitqadmim. Jerusalem: Hebrew University Faculty of Arts, 1980. [Hebrew]
    • Pely, Hagai. “The Book of ‘Kanah’ and The Book of ‘Peliah’: Literal and Esoteric Meaning of the Halakhah.” Tarbiz 77, no. 2 (2008): 271–93.
    • ———. “The Ways of ‘Adjudication’ in ‘Sefer Ha-Kanah’ and ‘Sefer Ha-Peliah.’” Daat: A Journal of Jewish Philosophy & Kabbalah 68-69 (2010): 187–224.