Asked by Rabbi Rachel Schwartz on the behalf of a pupil at a Hebrew school in the United States: Why is the kittel worn on the High Holy Days? When were Torah scrolls first dressed in white for the High Holy Days and what prompted this change?
I) The sources for wearing a kittel or white clothes on the High Holy Days
According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 1:3, fol. 57b and parallels) (1), Jews on Yom Kippur “wear white and cover themselves in white”. This passage in the Yerushalmi, to which we will return below, is quoted in various ways by nearly twenty Rishonim (medieval authorities).(2)
Most of these Rishonim merely quote the passage without adding anything. However, R. Yehiel b. R. Yekutiel in 13th century Italy includes a halakhic ruling on this matter (Tanya Rabbati, end of paragraph 78, ed. Bar-On, p. 319) based on another source:
One dons clean white clothes, as it says (Shabbat 119a): "What is the meaning of the verse "The Lord's holy day honored" (Isaiah 58:13)? This refers to Yom Kippur, on which there is neither eating nor drinking. The Torah says: honor it by wearing clean garments.
The word “white” does not appear in the printed editions of the Talmud and seems to be R. Yehiel's addition.
R. Yisrael Isserlein (Neustadt, d. 1460), wore “a white tunic over his clothes” on Rosh Hashanah (Leket Yosher, Part 1, p. 130).
R. Moshe Isserles cited this custom in the 16th century in his Darkhei Moshe Ha'arokh (to Tur OH 610:2) as well as in his glosses to the Shulhan Arukh (OH 610:4):
It was the custom of some people to wear clean white clothing on Yom Kippur, in emulation of the ministering angels. Likewise, it is the custom to wear a kittel which is white and clean and also the garment of the dead; this makes the human heart submissive and broken.
This custom is subsequently mentioned in many Ashkenazic sources.
R. Ya'akov Emden refers to it in the eighteenth century: "It is customary to wear clean white clothing and the outer garment of the dead”. The latter phrase refers to the kittel or sargenes -- see the explanation below.
R. Avraham Gumbiner (Magen Avraham on Shulhan Arukh OH, ad loc.; Poland, 17th century) deliberated whether women wear white or not, but R. Ephraim Zalman Margaliot writes in his Mateh Ephraim in the early 19th century that “women are accustomed to wear white on Rosh Hashanah” and Yom Kippur, though without gold or silver ornamentation (also quoted in the Mishnah Berurah to OH 610, subparagraph 16).
R. Margaliot, as well as Rabbi Yehudah Dov Singer in our time (p. 156), both report that there are different customs as to who wears a kittel – the entire congregation or only the cantors, shofar blower, and the one who calls out for the shofar blower. On the other hand, among German Jews the kittel is worn by the entire congregation (Wassertil, pp. 75-76), as can also be seen in an illustration from Prague from 1734 (Rubens, plate 220).
This custom was also widespread among Sephardic Jews and Jews in the Islamic world:
R. David Ibn Zimra (Egyptand Eretz Israel, d. 1574) tells of an ancient custom in Egypt “that they wear white” on various special occasions “and also on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur… and it is a nice custom” (Responsa Radbaz, New York, 1967, Part Two, No. 693).
R. Shemtob Gaguine reported in the mid-twentieth century that
the custom in all the cities of Eretz Israel, Syria, Egypt and Turkey, and in the cities of Morocco, is to wear pressed white clothing on Rosh Hashanah, and here [=London or England?] they wear black and black silk hats like on all other holidays.
R. Joseph Kafih and Moshe Tzadok attest to the practice of Yemenite Jews before they immigrated to EretzIsrael. Rabbi Kafih reports that on Erev Yom Kippur people "wear silk clothes or beautiful white clothes and flock to the synagogue".
In describing the customs of the Jews of Algiers in 1889, R. Eliyahu Guedj recounts that as a young man he would pray on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Great Synagogue with a certain well-known rabbi "and he would wear a white kittel, standing on the platform just like an angel of the Lord of Hosts".
However, in some places it was not customary to wear a kittel. For example, in Jerusalem in the late 19th century, they did not wear the kittel because the men of the Old Yishuv wore white every day, nor did they dress the dead in a kittel (Luncz; also quoted by Agnon, p. 244, without a reference).
II) On what other occasions is the kittel worn aside from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
Before answering the question as to why we wear white clothing on the High Holy Days, it must be emphasized that it is customary to wear a kittel or white clothing on many other special occasions:
This custom is mentioned by the Ra'avan in 12th century Ashkenaz (Sefer Ra'avan, paragraph 359, Samloi, 1926, fol. 149d): "… sargenes on Shabbat, which is not a weekday garment, for it is not suitable for doing work". The sargenes or sargenez or sarganit was a white robe of wool or silk worn over one’s clothing.(3)
The Ra'aviyah, the grandson of the Ra'avan, also mentions the sargenes as a Shabbat garment (Sefer Ra'aviyah, ed. Aptowitzer, Part I, pp. 245-246): "Therefore they are accustomed to wear a sargenes, to cover up their weekday clothes [on Shabbat], for those who do not have a change of clothing". This last sentence also appears in Hagahot Maimoniyot (to the Rambam, Laws of Shabbat, Chapter 30, paragraph 2).
Rabbi Shlomo Luria wrote in 16th century Poland (in his commentary on Zemirot Shabbat,Venice, 1603, p. 23a, quoted by Assaf):
On Shabbat we must be robed and distinguished, like the ministering angels… that is why we wear a cloak called a kittel, and so is the custom of the Ashkenazim…
R. Yosef Yuzpe Hahn (Frankfurt-am-Main, d. 1637) tells of the “special cloak for Sabbath and holidays”, but it is not clear if it was white (Yosef Ometz, paragraph 591; but see paragraph 592 which implies that the garment was indeed white).
The Kabbalistic Hasidim in Jerusalem who pray according to the Kavanot of the Ari [Rabbi Yitzhak Luria] wear white every Erev Shabbat and of course on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (R. Shemtob Gaguine, p. 64).
2. Yom Tov (Festivals)
The sargenes is mentioned by the disciples of R. Meir of Rothenberg as an appropriate garment for Yom Tov. Both sources attempt to link white Yom Tov garments to burial shrouds.
R. Shimshon bar Tzadok wrote in his Tashbetz (paragraph 160, ed. Machon Yerushalayim, p. 85):
As for the sargeniza garment which they usually wear on Yom Tov, because there is a surplus of joy, therefore they wear it to prevent pride, therefore one wears it over one’s clothes in order to remember the day of death.
And thus wrote R. Meir Hacohen of Rothenberg in his above-mentioned Hagahot Maimoniyot in the name of his teacher, R. Meir of Rothenberg:
This is what the copyist heard from R. Meir of Rothenberg: For this reason they are accustomed to wear the sarganit on Yom Tov, since on Yom Tov too one must change [clothes], and another reason is that everyone is joyous on Yom Tov, so they wear the sarganit, the garment for the dead, to remember the day of death so that he should not become arrogant. (Their comments are briefly cited in Sefer Haminhagim by R. Isaac Tirna, Laws of the Seder, in the glosses, paragraph 85, p. 45).
The above-mentioned R. David ibn Zimra reports that there is an ancient custom inEgypt“to wear white… and so too on Shavuot, for it is written [regarding the Revelation atMt.Sinai] 'let them wash their [clothes]' (cf. Exodus 19:10)”.
3. The Cantor when reciting the prayer for dew and rain, and on Hoshanah Rabbah
This is practiced in Ashkenazic communities today, as reported by twentieth-century rabbis such as Rabbis Eisenstein, Markon, and Kieval.
4. The Passover Seder
This custom is noted by many Ashkenazic sources from the 17th century onwards.(4) It can also be seen in illustrations, for example, in an illuminated Haggadah dating from Germany in 1716 (Rubens, plate 185) and in a famous painting by Moritz Oppenheim, Germany, 1860 (EJ).
5. The Hattan (bridegroom) under the wedding canopy
This custom, discussed by Adler and Sperber, apparently dates from antiquity. Bridegrooms wearing white are already mentioned in the Talmud (Shabbat 114a = Niddah 20a).
In Provence, circa 1300: “They dress him [the bridegroom] in white shoes. They drape a white tallit [i.e., garment] over him, to fulfill the verse (Kohelet 9: 8) 'Let your clothes always be white' (Orhot Hayyim, Hilkhot Kiddushin, paragraph 21, p. 65 = Kol Bo, Hilkhot Ishut, paragraph 75, ed. Avraham, Part 5, col. 113).
R. Moses Matt (Poland, d. 1606) cites the Kol Bo, adding: “This is the reason for garbing him in a kittel as he enters under the wedding canopy". He then adds a reason for this custom according to a midrash that a bridegroom is absolved of all his sins, “and since their sins are absolved, therefore he wears the kittel to signify forgiveness, as in (Isaiah 1: 18): 'If your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow' (Mateh Moshe, Hakhnassat Kallah, chapter 1, paragraph 2, ed. London, 1958, p. 344).
Another account of bridegrooms wearing a sargenez is found in Sefer Haminhagim in Yiddish,Amsterdam, 1645 (Markon, p. 123).
R. Jacob Emden (d. 1776) reports: “The best men dress the bridegroom in the kittel (to remember the day of death so that he may repent)” (Siddur Beit Ya’akov, p. 124)
R. David ibn Zimra also reports: "and there is an ancient custom in Egyptthat they wear white under the huppah".
It is noteworthy that in Ashkenaz the bride wore a white sargenes under the huppah as early as the 15th century, many years before the groom wore a kittel or sargenes. The halakhic authorities who mention this custom explained that this was "in order to remind [one of the] day of death” (see Maharil, Maharam Mintz and R. Yuzpe Shamesh quoted by Glick, pp. 134-135).
6. The "Daughters of Jerusalem" on Tu Be'av and Yom Kippur
According to a statement by R. Shimon b. Gamliel in the oft-quoted Mishnah (Ta’anit 4: 8):
Israel had no greater days of joy than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, on which the daughters ofJerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments, in order not to embarrass anyone who didn't have [a suitable dress].
7. Burial Shrouds
White shrouds were introduced through a Takkanah [rabbinic enactment] of R. Gamliel the Elder:
In the beginning, burying the dead was harder for the relatives of the deceased than his death [due to the expense of the shrouds], so much so that the relatives of the deceased would leave the body and run away. Until R. Gamliel came and adopted a simple style by being buried in garments of linen [i.e., in simple white clothing], and the people followed his example to be buried in garments of linen (Mo’ed Kattan 27b = Ketubot 8b; this ruling was only accepted in the Amoraic period – see Glick, pp. 128-130).
III) Why do we wear a kittel on the High Holy Days?
In his above-quoted gloss on the Shulhan Arukh, R. Moses Isserles gave two different explanations for wearing white clothing or a kittel on the High Holy Days: (a) Emulation of the angels; (b) the kittel is the garment of the dead.
Indeed, many reasons for this custom have been proposed throughout the generations. Some of them derive from what we have seen above – that it is customary to wear a kittel or white clothing on many different, and even diametrically opposed, occasions:
1. In order to dress festively on Yom Kippur in clean garments
This is the reason offered by the author of Tanya Rabbati (see above) in the 13th century and by Rabbis Markon (p. 125) and Singer (p. 46, with regard to wearing a kittel for the Passover seder) in our day. All three of them adduce a midrash found in Shabbat 119a:
The Resh Galuta asked Rav Hamnuna: "What is the meaning of the verse "The Lord's holy day honored" (Isaiah 58:13)? This refers to Yom Kippur, on which there is neither eating nor drinking. The Torah says: honor it by wearing clean garments.
2. As a symbol of joy
Let us now return to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 1: 3, fol. 57b), quoted briefly at the beginning of this responsum:
Said R. Simon: it is written "Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect…" (Deut. 4: 8). R. Hama b. R. Hanina and R. Hoshayah. One said: What other nation is like this nation! Generally, when a man knows he faces judgment, he wears black [clothing], robes himself in black, and lets his beard grow, for he does not know the outcome of the judgment. But not so Israel, who wear white [clothing], robe themselves in white, shave their beards, and eat and drink and are joyful, knowing that God, blessed be He, performs miracles for them.”
In other words, white is the color of joy, and we rejoice on Erev Yom Kippur, confident that our sins will be forgiven. Indeed, we know from quite a number of sources in rabbinic literature that white was a symbol of joy, as opposed to black -- the color of sorrow, death, and mourning.(5) In fact, several modern scholars cite the reason given in the Yerushalmi, a number of them emphasizing that this is the correct explanation (Schauss; Markon, pp. 126-127; Kieval; EJ; Klein).
3. As a symbol of purity
R. David ibn Zimra, in his responsum cited above, stated in the 16th century: “And so too on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur [they wear white] because of (Isaiah 1: 18): 'If your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow' ". Indeed, this explanation is also given by several modern scholars (Markon, p. 121; Gaster, Festivals, p. 121; Kieval; Singer, p. 47; EJ).
4. In remembrance of the High Priest on Yom Kippur
The Torah tells us (Leviticus 16: 4): "he shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic". The usual interpretation is that the High Priest wore white (Lauterbach).
This is the explanation given by the Maharal of Prague for wearing white at the Pesah Seder (Gevurot Hashem to the Passover haggadah quoted by Markon, pp. 125-126 and Singer, pp. 46-47; Klein gives a similar explanation without citing the Maharal).
5. To resemble angels
This suggestion was made by R. Moses Isserles cited above, following several Rishonim.
R. Shlomo Luria cited above gave a similar reason for wearing white on Shabbat: "On Shabbat we must be robed and distinguished, like the ministering angels…".
Lauterbach, as usual, suggested a folkloristic approach. The purpose of wearing white is to cause "Satan to believe that the worshippers are like angels and without sin".
6. "Clothes make the man"
Gaster (New Year) draws upon the expression “Clothes maketh man” to explain that most nations don clean clothes on their New Year. The Romans made a point of wearing white on January 1st. In all such cases, what is indicated is that a new character or identity is being assumed. Gaster adds a secondary reason: a convenient disguise against the assaults of the demons and evil spirits who are especially rampant at the New Year season – if you are clothed in a different fashion, they won't be able to find you.
7. Wearing shrouds to resemble the dead while their fate is decided in Heaven
This is the explanation of J.B. Segal, as summarized by Rubens. They rely on a parallel custom from ancientGreece: "At the Greek spring festival of Anthesteria, shrouds were worn in order to disguise the individual and feign death while the divine powers were fixing his fate during the coming year".
8. Memento mori – in order to remember the day of death
As we have seen, R. Moses Isserrles and many other halakhic authorities linked the wearing of the kittel on the High Holy Days and other festivals with the shrouds worn by the dead.
* * * * *
When it comes to customs, the gates of interpretation are forever open. But in my opinion, after studying all the above sources, I believe there are only three explanations that fit all of the above-mentioned customs and sources (Cf. Abrahams; Markon, pp. 125, 127; Schauss; Kieval; EJ; Klein; Golinkin).
- The simple explanation for most of these customs is that in the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, white was the color of joy.
- An additional explanation of some of the above customs is that white is the color of purity.
- Finally, two of the customs – shrouds and the white garments worn by the 'Daughters of Jerusalem' -- were enacted so as to maintain equality between rich and poor, as stated explicitly in the Tannaitic sources.
It is true that in the medieval period they began to link white garments – the kittel and the sargenes - worn on various festivals with the white shrouds, but this is a secondary, not the original, explanation.
IV) Why and when did they begin to use white ark curtains, Torah mantles and table covers on the High Holy Days?
R. Solomon Freehof, who was very well-versed in Jewish law and custom, writes in his responsum on this topic: "I have searched through most of the books of minhagim [customs] and I have not succeeded in discovering a single reference to a well-established custom that the Torahs should be covered with white during the High Holy Days". I too searched and found no mention of it in most of the books, but finally -- following the adage of the Sages "I have toiled and found nothing? Do not believe" (Megillah 6b) -- I found what I was looking for.
As far as I know, the first to mention these customs is R. Ephraim Zalman Margaliot (Sha’arei Efrayim, Galicia, d. 1820), who also provides the most detailed description of these customs:
The ritual objects -- ark curtain, Torah mantles and table covers -- should be beautiful and splendid, to honor and glorify the Torah. It is customary to make these in many different colors.
In honor of the High Holy Days, white ark curtains, Torah mantles and table covers should be designated, for these are the days of judgment, as is written (Isaiah 1: 18): "If your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow". It was the custom to hang a white ark curtain and cover the Torah scrolls used for the day’s reading in white mantles.
This is also the custom on Hoshanah Rabbah and the first day of Pesah. After the Torah reading, the Torah scroll is covered with a white mantle and a white ark curtain is hung up prior to the prayer for dew, and the same on Shemini Atzeret prior to the prayer for rain.
In some places, it is customary on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to dress all the Torah scrolls in white, even those that are not used for that day's reading, and everyone should follow his own custom.
The next mention of these customs is in a document from Hagen, Germany, in 1897 (Yaniv), but it should be noted that I did not find a single image of a white Torah mantle in her book, Ma'aseh Rokem, devoted to ritual objects made from textiles.
Likewise, Agnon, in his classic Yamim Nora'im (The Days of Awe) mentions it only in a single paragraph (p. 59). He says that white indicates forgiveness, based on the verse from Isaiah quoted above, and hints at God’s attribute of hesed (cf. the Maharal of Prague mentioned above). However, contrary to his usual practice, Agnon does not provide any reference to a specific book. In other words, he apparently found no written source for this custom.
These customs are also mentioned by Gaster (Festivals), Kieval, and Wassertil in his chapter on the customs of Ashkenazic Jews (Perushim) in Eretz Yisrael (p. 118).
There is no doubt that these late customs were borrowed from the ancient custom of wearing white on the High Holy Days.
May the white clothing, Torah mantles, table covers, and ark curtains which we use on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur bring us true joy and help us purify ourselves on the High Holy Days.
18 Elul 5775
My thanks to Sara Friedman for her initial translation of this responsum.
1. This source is also quoted in Yalkut Shimoni, Va'ethanan, paragraph 825 and ibid., Tehillim, paragraph 888 and in Yalkut Kuntress Aharon found in Levi Ginzberg, Seridei Yerushalmi, New York, 1909, p. 313 and in Yalkut Hemekhiri to Tehillim, Chapter 81, paragraph 18.
2. For most of the Rishonim who quote this Yerushalmi, see Ratner. For a more complete list in chronological order, see the Hebrew version of this responsum, found under Aseh Lekha Rav, Volume 2, Number 1, at www.schechter.ac.il.
3. For the etymology of the word sargenes, see Berliner, p. 77; Avigdor Aptowitzer, Sefer Ra'aviyah, Part 1, p. 246, note 1; Markon, pp. 122-123; and Glick, p. 131.
4. Such as Sefer Minhagim in Yiddish, Amsterdam, 1645, fol. 19b, quoted by Markon, p. 123; the Taz, Magen Avraham and Hok Ya'akov to Shulhan Arukh OH 472 -- all three say that the kittel is a garment of the dead; the Maharal of Prague in Gevurot Hashem on the Haggadah quoted by Markon, pp. 125-126; Hassidim and Moroccan Jews referred to by Golinkin, p. 79; Singer, pp. 46-47.
5. Mishnah Sotah 1:6; Mishnah Ta'anit 4:8 mentioned above; a beraita in Menahot 109b = Yoma 39b and cf. Michael Higger, Massekhet Semahot, p. 243; Shabbat 114a = Niddah 20a mentioned above; Shemot Rabbah, end of chapter 31, ed. Vilna, fol. 59d; Massekhet Semahot 2:8, ed. Zlotnick, p. 4; ibid., 7:13, p. 17; Eikhah Rabbah, Petihta 23, ed. Vilna, fol. 6a; Tosefta Hagigah 2:9, ed. Lieberman, p. 384..
Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages,London, 1896, p. 292
R. Binyamin Adler, Hanissuin Kehilkhatam, second edition,Jerusalem, 1985, p. 365
Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Yamim Nora'im, fourth edition, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1956, pp. 59, 243-244
Simhah Assaf in Sefer Hayovel Likhvod Levi Ginzberg,New York, 1946, p. 52
Avraham Berliner, Hayei Hayehudim Be'ashkenaz Biyemei Habeinayim,Warsaw, 1900, pp. 28, 40-42, 77
Erica Chernofsky, Jerusalem Post Magazine, March 30, 2007, p. 46
R. Herbert Dobrinsky, A Treasury of Sephardic Laws and Customs,Hoboken andNew York, 1986, p. 263 and note 51
R. J.D. Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim Uminhagim, New York, 1917, p. 364
R. Ya'akov Emden, Siddur Bet Ya'akov, Lemberg, 1904, pp. 124, 338
EJ – Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 10, col. 1079, s.v. Kittel
R. Solomon Freehof, Current Reform Responsa, 1969, No. 5, pp. 25-29
R. Shemtob Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov, Part 6, [England], 1954, pp. 64-65
Theodor Gaster, Festivals of the Jewish Year,New York, 1952, pp. 121, 151
Theodor Gaster, New Year: Its History, Customs and Superstitions,New York, 1955, pp. 58-59
R. Neil Gillman, Divrei Hayamim, JTS, 14/5 (October 2, 1995)
Shemuel Glick, Or Nagah Aleihem, Efrat, 1997, pp. 127-139
David Golinkin, Insight Israel, second series,Jerusalem, 2006, p. 79
R. Eliyah Guedj, Zeh Hashulhan, Part 2,Algiers, 1889, pp. 53-54
R. Yosef Kafih, Halikhot Teiman, third edition,Jerusalem, 1982, p. 13
R. Hayyim Kieval, The High Holy Days,New York, 1959 andJerusalem, 2004, pp. 87 and 209
R. Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice,New York, 1979, pp. 120-121
R. J.Z. Lauterbach, HUCA IV (1927), p. 185 = Rabbinic Essays,New York, 1973, p. 63 and note 11
A.M. Luncz, Yerushalayim 1 (5642), p. 39
R. Ephraim Zalman Margaliot, Mateh Ephraim, Pietrkov, 1906, 581:55; 584:3; 610:11; pp. 30, 48, 152
R. Ephraim Zalman Margaliot, Sha'arei Ephraim 10:20, ed.Jerusalem, 1986, p. 151
R. Yitzhak Dov Markon, "Hakittel", Melilah 1 (5704), pp. 121-128
Dov Baer Ratner, Ahavat Tziyon V'yerushalayim L'masekhtot Rosh Hashanah V'sukkah, Vilna, 1911, pp. 13-15
Alfred Rubens, A History of Jewish Costume,London, 1967, p. 124 and plates 185, 220
Hayyim Schauss, The Jewish Festivals,Cincinnati, 1938, p. 83 and note 89
J. B. Segal, The Hebrew Passover,London, 1963, pp. 146-147
R. Yehudah Dov Singer, Ziv Haminhagim, third edition,Jerusalem, 1975
David Sperber in: Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, Part 4,Jerusalem, 1995, p. 103, note 40
Moshe Tzadok, Yehudei Teiman, Tel Aviv, 1983, p. 194
Asher Wassertil, editor, Yalkut Minhagim, third edition, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 75-76, 118, 276, 445
Bracha Yaniv, Ma'aseh Rokem,Jerusalem, 2009, p. 343