10/05/2011 06:53 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2011

On Yom Kippur, Jews Split On Which Shoes To Choose

By Lauren Markoe
Religion News Service

(RNS) It's almost Yom Kippur, the day on which Jews fast, atone for their sins and wear sneakers with their suits.

That last part may not be the best known aspect of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, which begins at sunset on Friday (Oct. 7) and ends at nightfall on Saturday.

In some synagogues, it can be a delicate debate: to wear or not to wear leather when the Talmud -- the ancient commentary on Jewish law -- expressly forbids wearing leather on the most sacred day of the Jewish year.

For some, the teaching is irrelevant in modern times. For others, wearing leather is an unthinkable violation. But for a middle group, there's ambivalence -- and furtive glances to the floor to check out who's wearing what.

"Some of my heels have been synthetic," said Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of the United Hebrew Congregation in suburban St. Louis. "I've been thinking -- if I have enough time -- of going out and buying some off-white, grosgrain ribbon shoes."

If Rosenberg doesn't make it to the shoe store before Yom Kippur, it won't raise eyebrows at her congregation. As in most other Reform synagogues, which accept a more symbolic than literal interpretation of many Jewish laws and traditions, forgoing leather shoes is optional.

Still, Rosenberg said the prohibition on leather is "definitely something I would like to teach about" so that congregants -- many of whom may be unaware of the tradition -- can at least understand it and decide whether or not to follow it themselves.

The Talmud specifies five prohibitions on Yom Kippur, in addition to those associated with the Sabbath, when observant Jews do not work, drive or write, among other activities. On Yom Kippur there is also no eating and drinking, washing, sex or perfuming oneself. The idea is to humble oneself before God, to eschew luxuries.

Howard Sklamberg grew up wearing sneakers on Yom Kippur. But the Washington attorney dropped the practice when he saw someone at his synagogue get out of a car -- a clear no-no for the observant -- wearing sneakers.

Forgoing leather "seems an odd thing to single out if you're not going to go fulfill the full monty," said Sklamberg, who said a change in shoes has not affected his Yom Kippur experience.

"My atonement is complete," he said, "in leather, or without leather."

There are other contradictions with the no-leather rule, leather wearers point out. If the idea in the Talmud is to avoid luxury and comfort, what about wearing sneakers -- a popular Yom Kippur leather shoe substitute -- which are undeniably comfortable?

True, sneakers can be comfortable, said Rabbi Jacob Traub, chairman of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco. But when the Talmud was written thousands of years ago, sneakers were not an option, he pointed out.

"You don't wear shoes because leather shoes are comfortable as opposed to going barefoot, which was pretty much the only other alternative, unless you live in Holland," said Traub.

But Traub -- who wears canvas shoes with rubber soles on Yom Kippur -- wouldn't advise anyone to choose an uncomfortable shoe for the Day of Atonement -- or to go barefoot.

"I would say once you've complied with the law, you've complied with the law," he said. "I'm not one of those rabbis who is looking for extra, to go above the law."

At the synagogue where he is now rabbi emeritus, and where he would sometimes issue pre-Yom Kippur reminders of the prohibition, he said compliance is "pretty good."

Miriam Friedman, the wife of one of the rabbis at the very traditional Chabad synagogue in Birmingham, Ala., will be wearing "these cute little black Mary Jane Crocs" on Yom Kippur, and she knows everyone praying around her will also be shunning leather.

But that's about as much thought as she's going to give to her footwear, said Friedman, who runs a preschool. "On Yom Kippur, we come to stand before God as a humble servant."

She said the ban on leather is less about giving up comfort than eschewing what was once a sign of prestige. It's also meaningful to her to make an obvious separation between Yom Kippur and the rest of the year -- when wearing leather is fine.

But at the end of the day, she said, "It's not about the shoes."