When Moses came close to a burning bush which the fire did not consume, he encountered the presence of God and was told to take off his shoes. “Do not come near here; (שַׁל־נְעָלֶיךָ) remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is (אַדְמַת־קֹדֶשׁ) holy ground .” (Ex 3:5). On the surface, this makes perfect sense. Muslims remove their shoes when they enter a mosque for prayer. Japanese custom is to remove the shoes upon entering the house because historically most houses had sacred shrines. But why exactly being barefoot in God’s presence is preferable to having your shoes on?
I propose an answer that may surprise you. Taking off one’s shoes is a way of admitting that the land you stand upon is not yours. In the East, shoes convey a very symbolic meaning. For example, if an Israelite refused to fulfill his obligations of levirate marriage, “…wife shall come to him in the sight of the elders, and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face; and she shall declare, ‘Thus it is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’” (Deut. 25:9). The man who relinquished his obligation to the widow of his close relative was publicly shamed.
The idea of אַדְמַת־קֹדֶשׁ (admat kodesh) “holy ground” points to the fact that this אֲדָמָה (adamah) “ground”, “soil” or “land” is God’s domain. The adjective קֹדֶשׁ (kodesh) means “holy” or “consecrated” and refers to something that requires special treatment. In ancient Israel, setting your shoe on a property was seen as a symbolic proclamation of ownership. Removing one’s shoe signifies the opposite – relinquishing a right or admitting that you do not own this property.
The land on which Moses would interact with God was God’s special domain. Moses had to remove his shoes to symbolically assent to the fact that he was entering God’s property.