The Custom of Discarding the Shoes of the Deceased

(not in Shulhan Arukh)

There is a widespread custom of throwing out the shoes of the deceased. Wouldn’t it be preferable to donate such shoes to tzedakah?

This custom is not mentioned in the Shulkhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 349:1-2) nor in later codes such as Hokhmat Adam or Arukh Hashulhan. It is first mentioned in the nineteenth century: “People consider it dangerous to wear the shoes of the dead” (Mishmeret Shalom). Some go even further: “They cut them up into thin little pieces which are discarded or burned” (Atzei Levanon).

What is the source of this surprising custom? Many have pointed to a passage in Sefer Hassidim (Germany, 13th century):

“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.” (par. 454 = Wistinezki ed., end of par. 1544).

It should be stressed that even according to this source one is not supposed to discard or destroy the shoes but rather to sell them to a gentile and give the proceeds to tzedakah.

But what is the source of this paragraph and what danger is involved? Various rabbis have pointed to a number of possible sources. Three are not convincing (Gittin 68b; Berakhot 57b; Yevamot 104b at top). Some rabbis suggest that Sefer Hassidim was afraid of contagious diseases and therefore one need only discard shoes worn by the deceased at the time of his illness or death. This explanation is possible since Sefer Hassidim contains many paragraphs connected to health and medicine, yet in the paragraph quoted there is no hint of this reasoning.

There is, however, one simple explanation of this passage, which was suggested independently by six different rabbis. They suggest adding the letter “hey” to the word “met” and the phrase should read “min’alim shel metah”. In other words, one was given shoes manufactured from carcass of a “metah” or dead animal and the source of the matter is the following beraita (Hullin 94a):

“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 if snakebite and the poison was absorbed in its hide).”

This explanation is clearly the intent of Sefer Hassidim. One should not give shoes made from a carcass to a poor Jew because they are dangerous lest the animal died of snakebite. Rabbi Tzirelson, for example, concludes: “Thus the whole custom of discarding the shoes of the dead has fallen into a pit (i.e. has no basis whatsoever)”. Furthermore, he and others stress that it is a direct transgression of the biblical prohibition of wanton destruction (“bal tashhit” – Deut. 20:19-20).

In conclusion, this custom has no basis whatsoever in our classical sources and a person who follows it has transgressed the prohibition of “bal tashhit”. Therefore, it is a mitzvah to donate the shoes of the deceased to the poor – both Jewish and non-Jewish. And as a reward for fulfilling the verse “When you see the naked clothe him” (Isaiah 58:7) may we experience the verse “Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly” (ibid. v. 8).

Rabbi David Golinkin
Approved Unanimously 5751