Q. In your article on face and foot washing before prayer, you wrote that it is reasonable to remove shoes when praying. What about when I would be the only one praying with my shoes off? Should I remove my shoes to pray even though no one else in the synagogue does so? And should I prostrate in a regular synagogue?
A. The article you refer to states, "Considering that we prostrate and place our faces to the floor, it is reasonable to avoid walking around a place of prayer with shoes on. It is also proper, if not common decency, to make sure your feet aren't dirty when entering a place of prayer. Washing them removes filth. And if they are smelly, washing them can reduce the odor."
That article speaks about an ideal setting wherein those praying prostrate in prayer. In a synagogue where it is not the practice to prostrate in prayer, the floor is almost certainly going to be filthy. Some Chasidic Jews even have the practice to spit on the floor during prayer. I guess just as with wearing shoes, they took as an imperative Haz"al's statement that one can spit in a place of prayer. Of course, that statement was intended only in pressing situations, such as the example given in Hil. Tefilla 4,11 within the context of distractions during prayer that occur against one's will.
It is counter-productive to remove one's shoes to pray in a place where everyone else wears shoes during prayer. Since everyone else walks around in such a place of prayer with the same shoes on that they wore while walking around outside, the floor is going to be dirty; and there's no telling what they walked on. Walking around in such a synagogue without shoes on will make your feet more dirty than they would be were you to pray barefoot outside in the grass. If your feet are damp due to having washed them, they will become even more disgusting - not to mention the noticeable smudges you're likely to create on the floor. Despite not removing your shoes in such a setting, one should make sure his shoes are clean, in fulfillment of Hil. Tefillah 5,5 - that "one should fix his garments, and make himself of excellent and splended appearance, as it states [in Psalms 29,2] 'Prostrate to YHWH in the splendor of holiness.'"
It is also not practical to prostate in prayer in most synagogues today, whether it be due to lack of space, because the floor is filthy, or because doing so would likely cause a disturbance during prayer -- whether to your own prayer or to the prayer of others. The final prostration that ideally immediately follows the Amida may, however, be done later in a different location. If this is not possible, it is not one of the five matters that prevent one from fulfilling his obligation to pray.
For these reasons, it is incumbent upon us to begin forming our own congregations where we can pray in an ideal manner. In the meantime, whenever praying with a standard minyan, keep in mind that washing the feet before prayer is only required for the morning prayers, and you can do so at home. And regarding prostration - it is not one of the five matters that are me'aqev an individual, that prevent an individual from fulfilling his duty to pray. As found in Hil. Tefilla 5:1,
“There are eight matters that one praying the Amida should be careful to do. If he did not do these, either due to pressure or coercion, or if he simply because transgressed and did not do one of them, he is not required to pray the Amida again. These are they: [...] bending down, and prostration.”
I think the state of the average synagogue qualifies as a situation wherein one is pressured or coerced not to prostrate during prayer. The same is the case with regard to removing shoes before praying with the typical minyan at the present time.
השיבה ה' שופטינו כבראשונה
R' Yosef Eliyah
(Laws of Prayer) Hilkhoth Tefillah 11:10
(Laws of Prayer) Hilkhoth Tefillah 4:11
(Laws of Prayer) Hilkhoth Tefillah 5:1 & 5:5
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