On Yoma 74, we noted that when the Torah says one should afflict oneself on Yom Kippur, the rabbis primarily understand that to mean fasting. But there is another custom of self-affliction: not wearing leather. Since those who practice this custom usually have to eschew their regular dress shoes, they wind up in some interesting Yom Kippur outfits consisting of a dress or a suit worn with canvas sneakers or Crocs. But according to the Mishnah, one should not wear shoes on Yom Kippur at all!
If the Mishnah explicitly forbids wearing shoes, then why does everyone come to synagogue in Keds instead of showing up barefoot? Just as yesterday’s daf explored some of the exceptions to the rules about bathing and using oil, today’s daf raises the question:
It makes sense that shoes are forbidden, but what is there to say about sandals?
The rabbis point out that sandals — think of a pair of flip flops — are not as sturdy as shoes and may come off in the water (another throwback to yesterday’s daf, which permitted walking through the water on Yom Kippur), and therefore don’t really count as shoes. In fact, the Talmud tells us that various rabbis would wear sandals made of all kinds of different materials on Yom Kippur: cork, reeds, palm fiber, even a sort of fabric sandal made of scarf wrapped around the foot — basically anything but leather! All of these non-shoe sandals allow people to get around on Yom Kippur without putting their feet too much at risk, but are still considered to be “afflictions” because they don’t provide shoe-level comfort and security.
Eventually, this distinction turned into the one we have today, in which all footwear made of non-leather fabric is considered acceptable for Yom Kippur. However, because the original prohibition targets shoes and not specifically leather, one contemporary rabbi has ruled that his students should avoid wearing Crocs to synagogue on Yom Kippur, on the grounds that they are too comfortable.
Personally, as someone who once brought Crocs on an overnight camping trip and lost one of them forever to an especially squelchy deep mud puddle, I think they fit perfectly into the rabbinic paradigm of sandals that protect your feet but have the unfortunate disadvantage of coming off easily. They also provide the added affliction of looking a bit silly. Perhaps most importantly, they’re a widely available non-leather option that provides some support for those who are spending much of the day standing in prayer. And as the Talmud’s discussion of these afflictions continues to emphasize, it’s all about balancing what’s meaningful and what’s feasible.
Read all of Yoma 78 on Sefaria.