Kraków: ​The Remuh, and Shoes

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Interior of the Remuh Synagogue, Kraków, Poland

In the morning, when I take the dog for a walk, I wear slip-on shoes. I put them on and remove them, in the same sequence, every time I wear them. Later, when I go to morning prayer, I wear lace-ups. I put them on, lace them, unlace them, and remove them, in the same order every day. I didn’t learn how to put on and take off my shoes properly until I was twenty-four. But what does how I put on and remove my shoes have to do with Kraków? Bear with me.

In my early twenties, I was in the army and stationed in a small town in southern Germany. I worked in the operations center, sometimes referred to as the war room. The job involved shift work. On the night shift, I would occasionally be paired with a Captain Goldstein. Usually, the night shift was not as active as the day shift. There was more unstructured time. During this free time, Captain Goldstein and I would learn together.

We studied a book written by a Hungarian Orthodox rabbi named Shlomo Ganzfried. The book, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, is a summary of a much larger work, the Shulchan Aruch, authored by a Sephardi rabbi named Yosef Karo. Karo completed his work in Safed, in what is now Israel, in 1563, and the book was first published in Venice in 1565.

It was from Ganzfried’s Kitzur that I first learned about putting on and taking off shoes properly. Here is what the Kitzur says in Chapter 3, section 4 (English translation by Hyman E Goldin) on the topic:

When our shoes have laces, we first put the shoe on the right foot without lacing it, then we put the one on the left and lace it, and afterward we lace the one on the right.

All of my army boots and dress shoes had laces, so I didn’t really think about slip-on shoes until later. I didn’t, but a rabbi living in Kraków, Poland in the 16th century did. His name was Mojżesz ben Israel Isserles, an Ashkenazi rabbi, more commonly referred to as the Remuh. He was born, lived, died, and was buried in Kraków. He is buried in the cemetery of the Remuh synagogue.

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Gravestone of the Remuh

The Remuh wrote glosses on the text of the Shulchan Aruch at points where the Ashkenazi and Sephardi customs were different. His glosses are introduced by the Hebrew word הגה, hagah, which means “gloss.” If Captain Goldstein and I had studied the Shulchan Aruch with the Remuh’s comments, we would have learned about slip-on shoes. Here is what the text concerning putting on shoes looks like, with the Remuh’s gloss appearing in the third line from the bottom, introduced by the second word from the left, hagah.¹

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Excerpt from Shulchan Aruch, Chapter 2, with the gloss of the Remuh on 2.4

So, what does it say? “Regarding our shoes which do not involve tying, it is the right shoe which should be put on first.”

What I have given here, of course, it only one small example of the work of the Remuh. His commentary on Jewish laws and customs has served as an indispensable guide to his people for over four hundred years.

Visiting the Remuh synagogue and the grave of the Remuh were highlights of Beth and my visit to Kraków. But as with so many things concerning the history of Jews in Poland, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. Friday night, the Remuh synagogue did not have a minyan. So everyone walked over to the Synagoga Izaaka. It was crowded. And the rabbi’s sermon was delivered in Hebrew.


¹Assistance in the identification and translation of the excerpt from Shulchan Aruch was graciously provided by the noted Israeli scholar-teacher, Avi Gold, of Be’er Sheva, Israel.

 

All images © 2018 Beth Ben-Avraham.

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