Explanations for the decree against wearing nailed sandals
360 CE to 400 CE
Hebrew and Aramaic
Title of work:
Shabbat 6:2, 8a
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
This passage from the Jerusalem Talmud offers a number of explanations for a section of Mishnah Shabbat 6:2 that includes the prohibition against wearing nailed sandals (caliga, pl.caligae) – shoes that were typically worn by Roman soldiers – when moving from a private domain (i.e. home) to a public domain on Shabbat. While the Mishnah does not provide the reasoning for this ban, the Talmud presents three options, each based on historical circumstances, to illuminate the origin of this decree. This talmudic passage reveals how its authors approached the prospect of Jews wearing footwear that was associated with the Roman army, and attests to the profound fear of Roman troops that was experienced in times of war. We also learn from this text that, when the Talmud was being composed, Jews no longer feared this sound from Roman soldiers.
This sugya (talmudic unit) starts with a question: “Why did they decree against [wearing] nailed sandals?” For the Talmud, this ban undoubtedly originated with a decree. The author(s) of the Talmud may have known of such an edict. However, given that, in principle, it is permissible to wear shoes or sandals when going between private and public domains on Shabbat, the Talmud does not explore this question in the context of Shabbat laws but, rather, regarding the association between this specific shoe and Roman soldiers. In fact, each explanation in this sugya refers to tragic events that were related to this sandal.
According to (B) and (C), fear of Roman soldiers, whether by the appearance or sound of this shoe, triggered miscarriages. Section B ascribes this panicked response to the sight of the tip of this sandal (or another part of that shoe), whereas Section C attributes their reaction to its sound. Other sources also report on the alarm caused by the sound of these nailed sandals: In Mishnah Sotah 8:1, the noise made by pounding of such sandals (there called qalgasim, following their Latin name), as well as the sound of swords, horses, and shields, would instill terror among Israelites, who were preparing themselves for battle. Thus, the sages prohibited wearing this type of sandal on Shabbat, in an effort to prevent further fear-induced miscarriages (though, as the Talmud asks in Section G, if this risk were posed by these sandals, why limit the ban to Shabbat?).
Section D provides a third reason for this prohibition: upon hearing these sandals, Jews “were pushed against one another and [ended up] killing each other.” According to Yuval Shahar, this description recalls an incident during the Bar Kokhba revolt, among Jews who were hiding in narrow underground spaces (“Forbidding of the Nailed Sandal,” p. 398, 401; more on these caves in Eshel and Zissu, The Bar Kokhba Revolt, p. 42-73). A parallel in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 60a) explicitly mentions Jews that took cover in caves. In such constricted and crowded spaces, the sound of these sandals may have incited panic. We may ask whether these explanations recount historical events that became catalysts for a ban against this footwear or whether the talmudic reasoning in (B-D) stems from the association of Roman soldiers with these sandals. In other words, does the Jerusalem Talmud provide reliable historical testimony of occurrences during the revolt, or is this conjecture? For Yuval Shahar, the talmudic evidence indicates that the ban against nailed sandals was decreed by the leadership of the Bar Kokhba revolt. A more skeptical approach might suggest that the Talmud produces these explanations from general knowledge of the revolt. In either case, the Talmud associates these shoes with Roman troops and the trepidation that they caused during or in the aftermath of a war against Rome. As we shall see, this dread seems to have been restricted to wartime.
After presenting these three possible rationales (B-D), the Talmud analyzes the practical differences between them (E) by observing a dissimilarity between (B), which refers to seeing these sandals, and (C and D), that mention their sound. This distinction has an implication for another shoe, known as a hadosta, whose form is debated by commentators (see Shahar, “Forbidding of the Nailed Sandal,” p. 399). It seems that this shoe produced a similar sound, but did not look like the Roman nailed sandal. Therefore, the hadosta would be prohibited only if the decree against nailed sandals were based on sound.
After clarifying the practical implications of these explanations, the Talmud then asks why this decree was not revoked after the end of this period (F), that our source defines as the time of the shmad (she‘at ha-shmad). The term shmad usually denotes the Roman persecution that followed the Bar Kokhba revolt. Several rabbinic texts mention this persecution which, according to this literature, included a ban on the observance of certain mitzvot (religious commandments), especially those that entailed public gatherings, such as reading from a Torah scroll, weddings, and circumcision ceremonies. In our sugya, if (D) indeed discusses hiding in caves, this section would seem to evoke a time of military conflict or immediately afterward, when Jews sought refuge in these complexes, rather than the persecution that followed. Yet, in Section F, the Talmud situates this tragic incident during the shmad. According to Yuval Shahar, the term shmad refers here to the war itself, not the subsequent persecution (“Forbidding of the Nailed Sandal,” p. 403). After the Talmud locates this decree in the time of shmad – whether during the war (following Shahar) or the persecutions afterward – the continuance of this prohibition long after the shmad is questioned. A technical response is given: no later court annulled it. Therefore, the Talmud does not identify a current reason to forbid wearing nailed sandals on Shabbat (or weekdays). The redactors of the Talmud live in an era without fear that the sight or sound of such footwear might prompt a miscarriage or death from being trapped amid a terrified crowd in a tight space. Neither is there principled opposition against this sandal, despite its association with Roman troops.
After considering potential reasons for this ban (A-D), the practical differences between these possibilities (E), and the persistence of this prohibition (F), the Talmud inquires why this exclusion is applied to Shabbat but not weekdays (G), as mentioned above. Since this sugya links this prohibition to historical fears of Roman soldiers rather than to Shabbat observance, it is unclear why this ban on nailed sandals only pertains to Shabbat. The Talmud replies that most people owned just one pair of sandals; thus, if nailed sandals were prohibited on Shabbat, the majority could not purchase a second pair so, de facto, they would not wear them.
Section H states that, if one attaches an extra layer of fabric to the bottoms of nailed sandals (probably to muffle their sound), they are permitted on Shabbat. In that context, the Talmud mentions Rabbi Yudan the son of Rabbi Ishmael, a third-generation amora who was active in the late third and early fourth centuries. Due to an unspecified medical problem with his foot, this rabbi would go out on Shabbat wearing nailed sandals that had additional material underneath. This scenario implies that Jews wore such sandals.
This source demonstrates that the Talmud views this as a prohibition that originated during the Bar Kokhba revolt and its wake; furthermore, it signals that the fear associated with these sandals is considered a holdover from the distant past, which remains in force due to a legal technicality (that is, no court had annulled it). Moreover, it seems that Jews, including rabbis, actually wore such sandals. Interestingly, that reality is mentioned with respect to someone who is infirm rather than a Jewish warrior (cf. Mishnah Shabbat 6:2).