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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 19.14:
What is the meaning of the part of the book of Ruth where the guy at the gate takes off his shoe?


The question raised concerning the incident in the Book of Ruth 4:7 is an interesting one. This practice was formerly done in Israel in cases of redemption or exchange: to validate any transaction, one man would take off his sandal and hand it to the other. Apparently this was an early form of acquisition (kinyan) where the sign of agreement was made by the passing or transfer of an inanimate object. In some cases that was a shoe, a scarf, etc. The author of Ruth is describing this practice while seeming to suggest it is no longer the case.

However we know that among Jews this practice or a form of it continued. The Talmud, the work of the rabbis, is filled with such examples. In the tractate Baba Mezia (46a) a transaction takes place in a granary through a scarf. This is in lieu of one who left his money at home! Even in our own day, the agreement made before a wedding (Tenaim) and a symbol of the agreement made in the document of betrothal is formalized by a "symbolic delivery" by, according to the Orthodox Rabbis' Manual, HAMADRIKH, "...letting the parties concerned hold a kerchief, that they will fulfill whatever is provided for in the tenaim." Here we see that an ancient custom continues in some form today. Such a practice can also be found in other cultures as well. The Rev Dr A. Cohen in his commentary on Ruth (Soncino Press) suggests, "The custom is also known among the Indians, the ancient Germans and the Arabs." Without trying to confuse the issue, the particular sandal practice has also been linked to the law in Deuteronomy 25:5. This is the obligation of a brother (Levir) to marry the wife of his deceased sibling. According to Deuteronomy, should he refuse, he is to go to the gate of the city and there the widow is to "pull off the sandal, spit in his face..."

In Ruth, the rejecting kinsman is not a brother-in-law to Ruth, but he is described as her "redeemer." While most commentators reject the connection, it is unavoidable.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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© (c) 1993-2004 Daniel P. Faigin <>