Illustration (Image credit: Wix)
What kind of shoes are you planning to wear on Tisha B’Av? It’s so easy today to conform to the requirement to wear soft leatherless soles. Choosing a pair from the abundance of trendy choices available is hardly a sacrifice. A casual observer would not even know that your choice of soles has any significance at all.
And certainly in our times when the immense diversity in dress that one is likely to see on any city street includes the most eclectic and bizarre, walking bare footed would hardly elicit a second look. In fact the figure that I once saw sauntering down the platform of a New York subway dressed in the full regalia of an American Indian chief drew not the least bit of attention from anyone. My amusement was aroused not because of the outlandish costume or its bizarre incongruity, but because no one else seemed to take notice or care.
In nineteenth century Poland, the dictates of conformity were a rigid structure that carefully delineated everyone’s dress and behavior. The last thing any Jew would want to do was to attract unnecessary attention, because one could never tell whether the results would be merely menacing or catastrophic.
The churban (destruction) of the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) nearly 2,000 years before loomed large and resonated with a profound clarity in the soul of Rav Yisroel Yitzchok Gruner. It was far more compelling than the harsh realities and urgency of shtetl life.
It was Rav Yisroel’s custom not to work on Tisha B'Av morning especially because he would not put on his shoes, which he needed in order to go out to the marketplace. But after his marriage to Liba, the daughter of Rav Sinai Steiner, an ardent follower of Rav Chaim Halberstam, the Divrei Chaim zt"l, his connection to Sanz hasidism deepened along with his reverence for the missing Beit Hamikdash. He would no longer work or put on his shoes on the afternoon of Tisha B'Av either.
Rav Yisroel earned his living translating documents into French for the Polish merchants. His absence on Tisha B'Av from the marketplace would jeopardize not just a day’s earnings but his entire livelihood, since the fickle merchants would not hesitate to use the services of another translator. When Rav Yisroel traveled to Sanz, to the bet midrash (study hall) of the Divrei Chaim, he arrived in the midst of a discussion and heard the Sanzer Rebbe talking about the churban and the worthiness of an individual to earn a livelihood without having to depend upon others.
Before Rav Yisroel had the chance to speak, the Divrei Chaim told him to quickly return home and accept the offer of the person that was waiting there for him. When Rav Yisroel entered his home, he found a drunkard who had refused to budge until his return. The drunk insisted that Rav Yisroel accept his offer. He would sell him the arendar (lease of an inn), a valuable liquor license that he no longer needed. He would accept whatever minimal payments he could make and wouldn’t care how long it would take him to pay for the license. Rav Yisroel accepted the arendar and was able to earn his living from this for the rest of his life.
This story was told on every Tisha B'Av by Rav Yisroel’s granddaughter. In the middle of the year before she died, she told the story again with the explanation that they would no longer hear it from her.
In our times, one doesn’t usually have to jeopardize their livelihood in order to commemorate the churban Beit Hamikdash. We needn’t undergo herculean efforts or place ourselves in a position of ridicule. We have the luxury of getting lost amid the chaotic conglomeration of visages that fill the roads in our lives while remaining loyal to our dictates.
Perhaps though we have also missed a chance to elevate our efforts in the workplace and the way that we dress from innocuous gestures into vibrant forces whose luminescence can help reveal the Beit Hamikdash that we await. The subliminal seesaw—oscillating with exquisite tension as it balances our ego, pockets, and social status in an incessant daily battle—determines what we will wear when we step out of the front door, and can be elevated into a succinct statement of our higher self.
The seemingly simple gesture of the precious Rav Yisroel, whose absence in the market on Tisha B'Av transformed the ordinary intermittent plodding of a workday onto the ethereal portal of Jewish history, brings us one step closer to the Beit Hamikdash. This business of the shoe soles is but a sole expression of a matter that should be incontrovertibly tied to the deepest part of our souls. And in our present galut (exile)—when commemorating the churban Beit Hamikdash seems easier—we should be all the more on guard.
When you slip on your slippers or select whatever sort of soles you will wear on Tisha B'Av, it should not be a mild, nearly effortless outer expression. We need to remember that the minutiae and certainly the celestial parameters of our lives are affected by the absence of the Beit Hamikdash. Our external soles are a physical pathway—a reminder to propel our connection inward and upward. It is the soul of the matter that truly matters. May we witness the re-building of the Beit Hamikdash, bimhera biyamenu (quickly and in our days)!
Darla Chavkin Stone's features have appeared in magazines, news publications, and research journals in the U.S., England, Israel, and Mexico and on the web. She is the editor of "Explorations In Soular Space."