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.

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68 COMMENTS

  1. The ownership thing sound far fetch. Being in contact with the ground prevent accumulating electric charge and die. Same thing with the priest garment entering in the presence of the arc ,they were connected with the ground by treads to not accumulate electricity. Electricity was considered the power of god like lightning was.
  2. Japanese custom is to remove the shoes upon entering the house because historically most houses had sacred shrines. I am from Japan. Let me explain from other side. Basic floor in Japan is made with rice straw mat. But there is real soft cover on that. Weaved grass. If we walk on that with shoes on, they can tear up so easily.
    • Hiromi, thanks so much for explaining that there is a tangible physical need to remove shoes inside traditional Japanese home. This is very helpful. I find it that often there is more than one explanation for most things. Shinto ideas aside, thanks for providing the other side.

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    • Yes, Richard. Going barefoot vs. having shoes on expressed a person's status in antiquity. Clothing items are expensive. Poor people went barefoot and the rich did not. Slaves would fit the poor category, of course. So yes, taking off your shoes can be a sign of deliberately showing a lower status.

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  3. It is interesting to see how Moses encountered the presence of God. The big picture seems to be one of repentance: a great sight (Elohim) caused Moses to turn aside (repent). After Yhwh saw Moses repent, Elohim (angel of the LORD) called to Moses. I always thought that Yhwh’s goodness lead me to repentance because I had never heard of Jesus. Perhaps it was Jesus’ goodness that lead me to repentance because, after all, it is God that makes it pass, not my wisdom Gotta love the Hebrew word humility!
  4. We still take off our shoes when entering any house to keep from soiling the floor. What has religion to do with that?
    • Doing something for a spiritual reason is very different from doing something for a pragmatic reason. Many cultural behaviors that have nothing to do with practicality. Same actions - different reasons.
  5. There might be other reasons why Moses had to remove his shoes. For one thing, shoes were not available to all people; many poor people went barefoot. So removing one's shoes is a sign of humility, as is still the case when someone dies and Jews sit Shiva-- they go unshod during this time. Also in the Hebrew Bible, G-d seems to prefer the natural to the artificial: for example altars had to be made of uncut stones. A barefoot person is in immediate contact with the ground, reminding him that where he came from and ultimately is going.
    • Joanna, these are all good reasons. I do not suppose that what I express in a couple of hundred words is comprehensive. I really like your analogies. Thanks for your contribution!
  6. It was first and foremost seems to me an Obedience to God's Will rather than man's own less intelligent, less powerful, less knowing or knowable will. One of the best parts of Jesus teaching is the necessity to do God's Will is to be "reborn" by daily repenting if necessary, and submitting to the new life of allowing God's Holy Spirit to guide you to the fullness of God's better Truth. So many people just seem to go through the ritual of accepting the religion, be baptised and then just follow what men say, not Christ New Covenant.
  7. If your interpretation is right than we should be bare feet all the time since accounting psalm 24 :1 “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, The world and those who dwell therein.” In our understanding Adam didn’t need shoes in paradise. He needed to protect his feet after the earth was cursed : Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. 18 Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, When we are on Holy (God’s) ground we remove shoes
    • LOL. Of course the earth the Lord's. He is the creator. In fact so is water and air and the rest of it, including us and our own children. Following this logic we cannot legally own anything, we only manage as stewards.
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  8. In Exo 3:6b, Moses averts his face in the presence of HaShem. He looks down. Today, when we recite the mosy holy and ancient prayer in Judaism - the Shema - we cover our eyes and look down. This is a posture of humility, in the fear of G-d.
    • Yes, Hershel. Hashem's presence is precious, his closeness brings up a feeling of unworthiness and great honor at the same time that the Creator is willing to be so close to his creation. Humility is a natural response when we realize we stand before our King.
  9. In Genesis and Joshua we see the phrase " standing on Holy Ground" both in connection with the very tangible presence of the LORD. it seems it is related to the presence of the LORD than the Place.
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