Why it is okay to give and/or receive (and use) clothing from someone else, including a deceased person, but not shoes? I have heard this as a minhag (custom). Is this proper? What is the basis for this, and what does Judaism say about it?
Used clothing can be washed, shoes cannot. Most likely the custom of throwing away the shoes of the deceased stemmed from the fact that many people died of diseases that could have been spread through sharing shoes.
Thank you for this interesting question. Judaism has an incredible history of laws and customs and understanding their intent and origin can be helpful to us in living a more mindful and meaningful life.
Yes, there is a widespread custom of throwing out the shoes of a deceased person. This custom, however, has no basis in any of the classical Jewish sources. In fact, one who discards a deceased person’s shoes, which could have been useful to someone else, violates the prohibition of bal tash’chit, wanton destruction.
The most common reference point of this custom is from the 13th century German work, Sefer Hasidim, where it says:
A person should not give tzedakah from something which is dangerous. A person was given shoes of the dead (min’alim shel met) and he wanted to give them to the poor. They said to him: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Rather sell them to a gentile so that no Jew should be endangered and then give the proceeds to the poor.
First of all, it should be noticed that this source says that one should sell the shoes to a gentile and then give the proceeds to tzedakah, not throw them away.
Second, the text is clearly intended to prevent harm and danger (from Jews; we should, of course, include everyone). Therefore, most scholars today interpret the phrase “shoes of the dead,” min’alim shel met, to refer to shoes made from a dead animal carcass, which in Hebrew is practically identical, i.e., min’alim shel metah (a difference of one letter, adding a heh). In context, this interpretation makes much more sense because a) Sefer Hasidim discusses many health related concerns in this section, and b) shoes made from a dead animal carcass could be considered dangerous, such as if the animal died from a snakebite and the poison was absorbed by the hide. To prove the point further, this interpretation directly correlates to a teaching in the Talmud (Chullin 94a), followed by a comment by Rashi:
Our rabbis have taught: one should not sell his friend a sandal made from an animal who died (sandal shel metah) as if it was made from a slaughtered animal for two reasons: first of all because of deception and secondly because of danger.
Rashi: lest the animal died of snakebite and the poison was absorbed in its hide.
Thus, it is not only permissible, but a mitzvah to donate the shoes (and clothes) of a dead person to both Jews and non-Jews.
Judaism teaches that one should not wantonly waste useful items, a basic principle known as bal tashkhit. It is based on a verse in Deuteronomy 20:19 which prohibits the cutting of fruit trees while beseiging a city for a prolonged period. The sages transformed its meaning very early and applied it to all aspects of life. The Talmud (Kiddushim 32a) teaches that “Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the negative mitzvah of bal tashchit, do not destroy or waste.”
It is significant that this original teaching on bal tashkhit includes breaking vessels and tearing garments, both practices associated with mourning. These are actions one takes when informed of the death of an immediate relative, but the principle of bal tashkhit limits the amount of destruction one can do even in the hour of mourning.
This leads directly to the teaching of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning 14:24) that one should donate clothing rather than destroy it. “One should be trained not to be destructive. When you bury a person, do not waste garments by burying them in the grave. It is better to give them to the poor than to cast them to worms and moths. Anyone who buries the dead in an expensive garment violates the negative command of bal tashkhit.” Clearly, based on these sources, it is proper to donate the clothing of a deceased person to tzedakah, charity.
But what about shoes. It took a bit of surfing around the internet to find any information about this. It is not in the Shulkhan Arukh, the premier code of Jewish law. It is not included in the various books on Jewish custom that I consulted. I finally found a responsum written by Rabbi David Golinkin in which he concludes, “this custom has no basis whatsoever in our classical sources and a person who follows it has transgressed the prohibition of 'bal tashhit'.” (http://www.responsafortoday.com/engsums/4_8.htm) It is an interesting responsum to read because he tries to uncover the sources for this odd custom.
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