In the Zabur of Prophet David it is written:

“One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard.”  (Psalms 62:11/12).

The rabbis in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 34a) asserted that this means there are multiple interpretations of each verse of Sacred Scripture that can be correct, and the word of God, even if they contradict one another.

Many of the early Muslim tafsir scholars would list several different possible meanings for an ayah before giving their own opinion. And most scholars of ShariCah will end their analysis of an issue with the statement that “Only Allah knows (for sure).” Since Prophet Moses lived 18 centuries prior to Prophet Muhammad, Jews have had a lot longer to find new insight in our sacred scriptures; so there usually are more different interpretations of Torah verses than there are Qur’an verses. But not always.

The Hebrew term for the concept of pluralistic interpretation of sacred scriptures is: Shivim Panim LaTorah (“Each Torah verse has 70 different facets”). Of course, Jews know of no verse that has 70 different interpretations —yet. After all, if we knew all 70 meanings of a verse we would understand it as well as it author —which is impossible. Also, what would be left for future generations of Biblical students to do! But, most verses have at least three or four different meanings and some have ten to twenty different insights.

Thus, I was surprised to learn of a Qur’anic ayah that had many more Islamic meanings than its parallel in the Torah. The Qur’an, unlike its historically older sibling the Torah, rarely relates the details of Biblical events. Yet in this case both sacred scriptures do relate the same detail, that God commanded Moses to take of his shoes.

The Torah states:

 “The angel of the Lord appeared to him [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then God said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Torah, Exodus 3:2-5]

And the Qur’an states:

“Indeed, I am your Lord, so remove your sandals. Indeed, you are in the sacred valley of Tuwa.” (20:12) The Islamic tradition offers at least 10 different ways to understand God’s command to Moses: “Remove your sandals. Indeed, you are in the sacred valley of Tuwa.” The Jewish tradition has only three (plus four more that refer to the relationship of Prophet Moses and his assistant Joshua, who was also commanded by an angel of God, “Take off your shoe (singular).” (Torah, Joshua 5:15)

While explaining why Prophet Musa was told to take off his shoes, some tafsir scholars (interpreters) took into consideration the material [leather] of the shoes.   The interpretation that Moses’ feet needed to touch that holy place directly, and benefit from the bounties of it, was preferred above most other interpretations. (Tafsir al-Tabari, 16:143-144).  Jewish tradition says that in the future Moses would build an alter to worship the one and only God right there. (So no parallel but an alternate interpretation.)

Also some tafsir scholars said the aim of this commandment was to prepare Prophet Musa —who was to receive a divine revelation— to warn him to pull himself together, and act more respectfully. (See Tafsir al-Tabari 4:39;  Diyanet Tefsiri, Kuran Yolu: III/537.) The Jewish tradition says it really meant: Abstain from sex with your wife. (Again no parallel but an alternate similar interpretation.)
According to another explanation, the reason Prophet Moses was ordered to take off his shoes was to be in awe and modesty while praying to Allah, just as pilgrims do when they circumambulated the KaCbah (Baytullah). The Jewish tradition points out that the priests in Prophet Solomon’s Temple (in Jerusalem) were also barefoot.
Yet another explanation is in order to honor that holy place. As a matter of fact, shoes are taken off before entering every mosque and especially to honor the KaCbah before visiting it. So when

Bashir ibn al-Khasasiyya was walking among graves with his shoes on, Prophet Muhammad commanded him: “Take off your shoes when you are in a place like this,” and Bashir said, “So, I took off my shoes.” (Abu Dawud, Jana’iz 74).

(No Jewish parallel.)

According to another explanation,

Allah spread a covering of light and guidance on the valley of Tuwa. Therefore, it was necessary for Prophet Moses not to tread on the covering spread by the Lord of the Realms. (Imam Qurtubi, al-JamiCu li-Ahkami al-Quran, 11/305-306).

(No Jewish parallel.)

Other tafsir scholars also focus on Tuwa Valley itself, for this was the first time a divine revelation became manifest to Prophet Moses and numerous angels that accompanied the revelation filled up that valley and blessed it. (No Jewish parallel.)

So it was necessary for Prophet Musa to take off his shoes on the land of a valley which received sacredness and blessing —just in terms of good manners. Also Musa’s body would have direct contact with the soil and the divine blessing current in it would be transferred to Prophet Musa’s heart and brain. (No Jewish parallel.)

Some tafsir scholars state that shoes are typically made of dead animal skin, so they are a symbol of the deadness of repetition, of spiritual monotony, enslavement to boredom and trivial mechanics. Hence taking off one’s shoes is a means to open our eyes, leading to watchfulness and awakening vigilance with sobriety. (No Jewish parallel.)

Another scholar noted that shoes are symbolic of our worldly lives, and the need to move about, whereas prayer is literally and spiritually “standing still.” Our problem is not that we are deliberately lazy in worship, but more often that we are bored. We become fragmented throughout the day, not utilizing our spiritual resources. Prayer is meant to bring about stillness. (No Jewish parallel.)

All of this shows that when the Qur’an states (2:79):

“So woe to their learned people (Orthodox Rabbis), who write the law with their own hands and then say to the people, “This is from Allah,” so that they might gain some paltry worldly end. This writing of their hands will bring woe to them (those Orthodox Rabbis) and what they gain thereby will lead to their ruin.” 

the Qur’an is not attacking rabbinic tafsir itself, but rather the failure of some Orthodox Rabbis to openly declare that their tafsir is human understanding and not Divine commandment.

This was especially the case of Orthodox Rabbis who continually added additional restrictions to the Torah’s rules about diet, sexual relations between husband and wife, and working on the Sabbath —and claimed that all this was part of the Torah of Moses.

So the Qur’an states (3:78):

And indeed, there is among them a party (Orthodox Rabbis) who alter the Scripture with their tongues (verbally) so you may think it is from the (written) Scripture, but it is not from the (written) Scripture. And they say, “This is from Allah ,” but it is not from Allah. And they speak untruth about Allah knowingly.”

Orthodox Rabbis claim that the rabbis’ Oral Torah is equal to, or even overrides the Written Torah of Moses; this practice is rejected by the Qur’an and to a great extent also by Reform Jews today.

Reform Rabbis today think that if Orthodox Rabbis want to add extra restrictions on themselves they may do so; but they are wrong to try to impose these extra restrictions on the general Jewish community.

For example, aî Muslim reports:

Thabit narrated from Anas:

“Among the Jews, when a woman menstruated, they did not dine with her, nor did they live with them in their houses; so the Companions of the Apostle asked him, and God revealed: “They ask you about menstruation; say it is a pollution, (Qur’an, 2: 222) so keep away from woman during menstruation.”   The Messenger of God said: Do everything except intercourse. (When) the Jews heard of that they said: “This man does not want to leave anything we do without opposing us in it.” (aî Muslim, Book 3, # 0592)

Both Islam and Judaism have laws about ritual pollution deriving from a woman’s monthly period. But Orthodox Judaism greatly expanded the number of days and ways that the prohibitions against having sex during a woman’s period should be applied. The Qur’an opposed this expansion and limits the prohibitions for Muslims. Reform Rabbis today are much closer to Islamic practice than they are to Orthodox Jewish practice. The ancient practice of removing one’s footwear was for the purpose of acknowledging the holiness of a time and place, and for maximizing the spiritual benefits connected with that setting. Prophet Muhammad and his followers continued the practice mandated to Moses in removing their footwear when entering a holy space.

Rabbi Allen S Maller

Allen S. Maller was the rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California for 39 years, from 1967 to 2006. Rabbi Maller edited the Tikun series of High Holy Days prayerbooks, used at Temple Akiba and at seven other congregations in California, Nevada and Arizona. Read Full Bio

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