A candidate for initiation into a Masonic Lodge often finds odd those requirements which he must fulfill in order to do as have all good brothers and fellows who have gone this way before. Indeed, that preparation often remains a puzzle to him, since the ritualistic explanation is only partial. Not only does the newly made brother, bewildered by the new world into which he is thrust, investigate further to ascertain if all was told him which might have been; to learn a still further meaning to the ceremony and symbol which the passage in Ruth purports to make plain.
Those who read the fourth chapter of the immortal Book of Ruth will note especially the seventh and eight verses:
“Now this was the manner in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbor; and this was a testimony in Israel.
“Therefore the kinsman said unto Boaz, Buy it for Thee. So he drew off his shoe.”
“Redeeming” here means the taking back or recovery of land or property pledged for a debt;
“changing” refers to the transfer of ownership. As both were then, as now, matters of importance, it is evident that the plucking off of the shoe, as a pledge of honor and fair dealing, was of equal importance, comparable with our swearing to our signatures to documents before a Notary Public, Note that “to confirm all things a man plucked off his shoe. . .” not his “Shoes.”
Taking off one and handing it to him with whom a covenant was made was a symbol of sincerity.Removing “both” shoes signified quite another thought.
These are separate and distinct symbols - in Freemasonry both are used - and it is wise to distinguish between the two, not to miss the beautiful implications of entering that place which is holy with both feet bare.
The Rite of Discalceation - from the Latin, “discalceatus,” meaning “unshod” - is world wide. Freemasonry’s ritual of the entered Apprentice Degree refers to the passage in Ruth. In the Master’s Degree the reference is not verbal but an act which differs in meaning from that in the first degree.
In all probability Freemasonry takes this symbol from other sources than the Old Testament; obviously any system of teaching which is the result of the coming together of a thousand faiths, philosophies, rites, religions, guilds and associations, must have received so common a symbol from more than one source, although the Great Light does contain it. In the Old Testament are several passages which make removal of shoes quite a different gesture than that described in the passage from Ruth.
Exodus (III:5) states: “Draw not nigh hither; put off thy shoes off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” In Joshua (V:15) we find: “And the Captain of the Lord’s Host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy.”
Ecclesiastes (V:1) reads: “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God.”
The association of the removal of footwear when treading holy ground is a fairly obvious symbol. Sandals or other footgear were used to protect, not the ground, but the feet, both from injury and from filth. To wear such protections in holy places, by inference stated that the holy place was harmful to feet, or was dirty! It is similar in thought-content to the world wide custom of men removing the hat in church. The Knight removed his helmet in the presence of those he did not fear. He was safe in church; the removal of his protection against a blow was his acknowledgment that in a sanctuary not even an enemy would assail him.
We know the custom was wide spread, not confined to Israel; from many sources. Thus, Pythagoras instructed his disciples to “offer sacrifices with thy shoes off.” In all the eastern religious edifices the worshipper removes his shoes in order not to defile the temple with that which touches the profane earth. Maimonides, expounder of ancient Jewish law, says: “It was not lawful for a man to come into the mountain of God’s home with his shoes on his feet, or with his staff, or in his working garments, or with dust on his feet.” The custom was found in Ethiopia, ancient Peru, the England of the Druids. Adam Clark thought the custom so general in the nations of antiquity that he quoted it as one of the thirteen proofs that the whole human race descended from one family. The Rite of discalceation becomes the more beautiful as we progress through the degrees. At first it is only a voluntary testimony of sincere and truthful intentions; later it is an act of humility, signifying that he who removes his shoes knows that he enters that which must not be defiled by anything unworthy. The word “humility” must be strictly construed that it be not confused with its derivative, “humiliation.” He who is “humble” but acknowledges supremacy in another, or the greatness of a power or principle; he who is “humiliated” is made to feel unworthy, not in reverence to that which is greater than he, but for the personal aggrandizement of the humiliator. A man removes his hat upon entering a home, in the presence of women, or in a church, not as a symbol of humility, but of reverence. The worshipper removes his shoes on entering a holy place for the same reason.. He who walks “neither barefoot nor shod” offers mute testimony - even though, as yet uninstructed, he knows it not - that he is sincere. Who walks with both feet bare, signifies that he treads upon that which is hallowed.
Freemasonry does not stress in words this meaning of the Rite of Discalceation for very good reasons; throughout our system the explanation of our rites concerns always the simplest aspect. The fathers of our ritual were far too wise in the ways of the hearts of men to teach the abstruse first, and go then to the east. Rather did they begin with that which is elementary; then, very often , our ritual leaves the initiate to search further for himself, if he will. It is Freemasonry’s recognition that man values most that for which he has to labor.