Once a year, Jews around the world make a unique, and not always attractive, fashion statement by wearing clunky sneakers or fuzzy slippers. (The Talmud records that the sages wore sandals of bamboo, reeds and palm branches on Yom Kippur - Yoma 78a-b.) Indeed, Jews in contemporary times often choose sneakers over even today’s synthetic materials that look like leather in order to uphold the prohibition against wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur. Leather shoes are avoided on Yom Kippur as a means of fulfilling the commandment to "afflict your soul"--"...on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict your souls and do no work at all...for on that day God will forgive you and cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before God" (Leviticus 16:29-30).
What does wearing leather shoes have to do with atonement? The sages recorded numerous Talmudic sources in support of the practice of not wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur. For instance, in Yoma 77a, "Rabbi Nachman ben Isaac said [it is derived] from: ‘Withhold your foot from being unshod, and your throat from thirst’ (Jeremiah 2:25), i.e., withhold yourself from sin lest your foot become unshod; withhold your tongue from idle speech, lest your throat become dry [faint with thirst]."
The prohibition of wearing leather on Yom Kippur applies only to leather shoes. According to Rabba, "Is [all footwear] forbidden on the Day of Atonement because of the pleasure it affords, even though it cannot be regarded as a shoe? Surely, Rabbah son of Rabbi Huna used to wrap a scarf around his foot and so went out!--But [in fact], said Raba, there is no difficulty: The one Baraitha refers to a leather sock; the other to a felt sock" (Yevamot 102b).
Of the five prohibitions of Yom Kippur (eating/drinking, washing, anointing, wearing leather shoes and marital relations), only wearing leather shoes is prohibited for children as well as adults. Eating, drinking, washing and anointing are all permitted to minors because they are considered necessary for the children’s health (Yoma 78b).
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