The Torah in Parashat Shoftim issues the command to obey the rulings of the Sanhedrin, the highest body of halakhic authority: “Do not deviate from that which they tell you, right or left” (17:11). The Rambam includes this prohibition in his list of the Torah’s 613 commands (lo ta’aseh 312; Sefer Ha-chinukh, 508).
Rav Moshe Teitelbaum of Ihel, in his Yismach Moshe, draws what at first appears as a random association between this verse and the halakha concerning the proper procedure for putting on shoes. The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 2:4), based on the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Shabbat (61a), writes that one should put on his right shoe before his left, but tie his left shoe before his right shoe. The Gemara reached this conclusion after citing conflicting sources – one which stated that precedence should be given to the right shoe, as the right side is generally regarded as the more important side, and another which said that the left shoe takes precedence because tefillin is worn on the left arm. In order to uphold both statements, one of the Amoraim (Mar Debei De-Ravina) would put on his right shoe before his left shoe, but tie the left shoe before the right shoe. Several Rishonim seem not to have accepted this ruling, but rather followed the view of Rav Ashi, who, as the Gemara states, felt there was no required sequence for putting on shoes. Nevertheless, the Tur and Shulchan Arukh ruled that this procedure should be followed. The Yismach Moshe suggests that when the Torah warns against deviating “right or left” from the instructions of the Sages, it alludes to this halakha, the procedure for putting on and tying the right and left shoes.
What might be the special significance of this particular halakha in the context of the Torah’s command to obey Chazal’s guidance?
The Gemara’s conclusion is borne out of the consideration of two conflicting principles – the general importance of the right, and the uniqueness of the left in regard to tying, as expressed in the tefillin, which is tied on the left arm. (And for this reason, incidentally, the Mishna Berura brings from earlier sources that left-handed people should tie the right shoe before the left shoe, because they wear tefillin on their right arm.) This halakha reflects the Sages’ careful, calculated decision-making process, taking into account the different factors at play and then reaching the most appropriate conclusion. The Yismach Moshe thus explained that the requirement to abide by our Sages’ instructions alludes to the halakha of putting on shoes – because this halakha very clearly expresses the vital need for scholars with comprehensive knowledge and complexity of thought needed to reach appropriate decisions. We need to consult with such scholars because with limited knowledge, we are prone to seeing only one factor and not the other; to take into account some relevant considerations without seeing the opposite considerations. The Torah therefore commands us to consult those who can see both “right” and “left,” who understand and appreciate the full range of considerations on any given issue, and thereby reach the most prudent conclusion.