Ask The Rabbi: A load of Crocs

Q. May I wear Crocs on Yom Kippur?

woman with crocs 311 (photo credit: Wes Pope/Chicago Tribune/KRT/ MCT)
woman with crocs 311
(photo credit: Wes Pope/Chicago Tribune/KRT/ MCT)
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 73-4).
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 Eliezer 7:32).
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 Uzmanim 6:28).
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!)