Q. May I wear Crocs on Yom Kippur?
A. The propriety of wearing comfortable nonleather shoes on Yom Kippur has engaged public dialogue over the last several years, following the strong discouragement of wearing Crocs by rabbis Yosef Elyashiv and Yaakov Ariel, amongst others. Despite the brouhaha, this debate actually continues a millennia-old discussion regarding the prohibitions of Yom Kippur.
The Torah never details which specific actions are forbidden on Yom Kippur. Rather, it repeats five times a more generic exhortation that a person should impose afflictions (inui) on themselves, along with refraining from the work actions regularly forbidden on Shabbat.
Unlike the medieval Karaites, who expanded these afflictions to include
wearing sackcloth and ashes, abstaining from sleep, and other
deprivations, the Sages rejected unlimited or undefined anguish (such as
sitting in the sun all day). Instead, they limited this precept to five
areas of self-denial: bathing, anointment, sexual relations, donning
shoes, and nourishment (eating and drinking), with the latter seen as
the most severe of the actions, punishable by spiritual banishment (Yoma
Some scholars believed that despite this selfdenial, an element of
festive joy is mandated, just as it required for other holy days
(mikraei kodesh) singled out by the Torah (Leviticus 23:27). In addition
to the requirement of wearing nice clothing (Shabbat 119a), we also
recite the shehehiyanu blessing for special occasions and cease shiva
mourning practices, indicating some form of festive nature to the day
(R’ Yonatan Me- Lunil Eruvin 40a). Indeed, some understood the
requirement to eat on Yom Kippur eve to fulfill the norm of feasting
performed on festivals (Bet Yosef OC 604). The Talmud further states
that Yom Kippur was deemed a happy occasion because of the atonement
afforded by the day (Ta’anit 30b).
Notwithstanding the spiritual fulfillment achieved, most scholars
understood the day to be unique precisely because it lacks festivities
(Sforno 23:27). As such, we refrain from reciting the joyful Hallel
prayer or excessive happiness (Hilchot Hanukka 3:6), deemed
inappropriate for a day of judgment (Erchin 10b). Ultimately, the Torah
aims to achieve a day of respite (shabbaton) from physical pleasure that
coalesces into a feeling of affliction (Rambam Mitzvot Aseh 164).
This goal, however, might afford certain leniencies with activities
clearly not intended for pleasure. The Talmud, for example, allows
people to rinse dirt from their body, and to wash their hands after
using the bathroom or before performing ritual activities (OC 613).
These dispensations led some to assert that these prohibited activities –
with the exception of nutrition – originated as rabbinic edicts (Rosh
Yoma 8:1). Others, however, believed that the Torah only prohibited acts
of pleasure, leaving room for leniency in other circumstances (Yereim
420). By its nature, however, anointments and nutrition entail
enjoyment, thereby precluding leniency, except in cases of medical
necessity (OC 614:1, 618).
An interesting debate exists regarding actions which do not constitute prohibited activities but alleviate discomfort.
The decisors discussed, for example, whether one can enjoy the aroma of
snuffing tobacco, with many permitting it (Aruch Hashulhan 612:6) and
some suggesting it as an appropriate way to mark the festivity of the
day (Shu"t Gan Hamelech 145). Other scholars similarly allowed people to
swallow slow-release pills before the fast to prevent headaches (Tzitz
Contrary to popular belief, the Talmud never explicitly limits the ban
on footwear to leather shoes. The mishna states a blanket prohibition
(Yoma 73b), with a parallel Tanaitic text further forbidding socks
(Tosefta 4:1). The only exceptions explicitly made are in cases of
illness, inclement weather, or while walking in hazardous areas.
However, the Talmud records that some Sages would wear footwear made of
reeds or rags (Yoma 78b). Some understood these Sages as limiting the
prohibition to a formal “shoe,” rendering all other protective devices
permissible. Others, however, contended that this was only allowed in
cases where one’s foot still felt discomfort from the ground; anything
that provided greater protection was disqualified (Ramban Shabbat 66a).
This dispute continued into the medieval era, with Maimonides (Shvitat
Assor 3:7) and others requiring one’s foot to feel the ground, and
others, followed by Rabbi Yosef Karo (OC 614:2), stating that only
footwear made from the strong material of leather or wood constitute
forbidden shoes. Although this remains the normative position, many
prominent figures, including rabbis Yisrael Kagan (MB 614:5) and Yehiel
Epstein (Aruch Hashulhan 614:4), believed it was meritorious to wear
slippers or shoes with soft soles that allowed one to feel the ground.
While Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik also discouraged padded sneakers (Nefesh
Harav 210), Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch went further to suggest that any
comfort shoes regularly worn should not be used on Yom Kippur (Moadim
Despite these sentiments, the widespread practice, as noted by Israel’s chief rabbi, is to wear any non-leather shoes.
(For the record, this writer does not wear Crocs… ever, because they do not fit my narrow feet!)