Q. Why do the kohanim take off their shoes before they duchan (recite the priestly blessing)?
A. The priests in the Temple ministered barefooted. Shoes do not figure in the list in Ex. 28 of items with which the priests had to be equipped. In some other faiths it is also the practice to remove one’s shoes before conducting or taking part in worship.
Shoes not only bring in mud and dust but represent the need to protect oneself from the harshness of the ground, whereas in a holy place one feels as safe as the angels (does any artist ever depict angels with shoes on?).
Samson Raphael Hirsch says in his commentary on Exodus (Isaac Levy’s translation, 1956, pages 25-26): “Taking off one’s shoes expresses giving oneself up entirely to the meaning of a place, to let your personality get its standing and take up its position entirely and directly on it without any intermediary.
“So the kohanim in the Mikdash had always to function barefooted, and nothing was allowed to intervene between their feet and the ground, or between their hands and the holy vessels used during the avodah, or between the priestly garments and the body…
“If one wished to act in the service of the Mikdash, one had to identify oneself directly with it, and become sanctified by it and be a part of it”.
There are a number of other mitzvot which are carried out without any intervening object (chatzitzah) – e.g. nothing must intervene between one’s person and the water of the mikvah and nothing must intervene between one’s skin and the tefillin.