Recently, I was asked to give a bit of background to my wearing of a kittel at services last week. This is a brief explanation of the custom and insight into my rationale as rabbi:
During my time as a Liberal rabbi, I have always worn a kittel during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. A kittel is a white burial garment which it has become customary for some to wear during the services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In fact, though I hope my kittel wears out in my lifetime, there is every possibility that the garment I wear at the High Holy Days will be the same garment in which I will be buried. So why do I wear a kittel during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? More specifically, why did I wear it and will I wear it at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue this year?
Well, I should state at the outset that it is not an attempt to undermine the Liberal Jewish values and principles of the community in which I work. The Liberal Jewish Synagogue is the flagship community of Liberal Judaism in the UK and I am honoured and privileged to serve as rabbi of the synagogue. The ideals of Liberal Judaism which I have in mind are those such as: Torah, in the widest sense of the word, is the product of a people’s struggle to understand their relationship to the world and to God; ethics are more important than ritual; we are not slavishly obedient to custom and practice just because it has always been done thus; we are outward looking, inclusive, progressive and modern; Judaism is a religion that has never stood still and its evolution continues today. Liberal Judaism in its own words “reverences Jewish tradition, and seeks to preserve the values of the Judaism of the past while giving them contemporary force. It aspires to a Judaism that is always an active force for good in the lives of Jewish individuals, families and communities today, and equally makes its contribution to the betterment of society.” (www.liberaljudaism.org)
When I was a rabbinic student, my first pulpit over the High Holy Days was in a community where the rabbis always wore white during the period. I was told that I would be expected to either wear a kittel or a white robe on the bimah. My initial reaction was one of incredulity, since I had never worn a robe or kittel in the past. However, some time before Rosh Hashanah, I went to a local Judaica shop and purchased a kittel. It was not particularly cheap and today I sometimes joke that I intend to get value for money out of it, since only using it at one High Holy Day pulpit and in the grave is a bit infrequent for my liking. But this is a joke, much like when I describe it as my ‘nightie’. I try and use humour to be a bit disarming; whilst I have decided to wear the kittel as a result of serious consideration, I am aware that it looks odd, strange, perhaps a bit disconcerting, to those unfamiliar with the garment and I’m not afraid of laughing at myself. After all, I can be fairly irreverent about ritual generally – I don’t think God particularly cares what I’m wearing, I wear it for me not the Holy One.
After using it for the first time, I recognised that something happened in my understanding of the significance of the Ten Days of Repentance (from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur), something occurred in my sense of leadership of a community through some of the holiest of days in our calendar. Even more significantly for a congregational rabbi, in those years when adequate introspective preparation eluded me due to unexpected communal duties or personal travails, the kittel was an aid towards feeling immersed and ready for the Days of Awe. As a result, I continued to wear it in every congregation in which I was the service leader. Since ordination, I have served three Liberal communities during the High Holy Days and at each one I have worn my kittel: Finchley Progressive Synagogue, Lincolnshire Jewish Community and Peterborough Liberal Jewish Community. I was completely aware of the example I was setting and often wearing the kittel prompted questions from congregants. I also became part of the communal expression of our yearning for wholeness and repentance during the period – just as we exchange the Torah mantles for white ones.
So, what are the interpretations offered for the meaning of wearing a kittel. I can cite three primary interpretations:
1) White is a symbolism of purity and hope. In the book of Isaiah 1:18 we read of atonement and restoration of a relationship with God in the following way: “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow…” White, in this sense, is symbolic of our forgiveness and of the possibility for our repentance to succeed. In fact, in the Palestinian Talmud (some 1500 years ago), we read:
“Rabbi Simon said, it is written “For what nation is there so great, that has statutes and judgements so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?” (Deuteronomy 4:8). Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hoshaya were arguing. One said: who is a nation like this nation. In the rest of the world it is customary for a person who knows that he will be judged to wear black and black robes and grow one’s beard, for one does not know how the judgement will turn out. But Israel is not so, rather they wear white and white robes and shave their beards and eat and drink and are joyous. They know that the Holy One who is blessed will perform miracles for them.” P. Talmud Rosh Hashanah 1:3 57b
This gets codified later in the Tur (a 14th Century code of Jewish law), “…it is the practice of the world that a person facing judgement wears black and black robes, grows his beard and does not cut his nails, since he does not know how the judgement will turn out. But Israel is not so, for they wear white and robes of white and shave their beards and cut their nails and eat and drink and are joyous on Rosh Hashanah, since they know that the Holy One who is blessed will perform a miracle for them. Therefore, it is customary to cut one’s hair and wash the day before Rosh Hashanah.” (Orach Chayyim 581)
In other words, a feature of Jewish custom as early as the first centuries of the common era was the wearing of white clothes as a representation of the relationship to God – in terms of purity and of our aspirations for that relationship. As I mentioned, even the Torah mantles are changed to white during this period as part of the representation of our longings for the outcome of the day.
2) The Kittel is a symbol of equality. As many people will know, the attitude towards Jewish burial is that equal we come into the world and equal we leave – in other words we are all equal at death, hence the simplicity of the coffin and the fact that we’re all buried in simple shrouds. This equality in death is an important aspect of the High Holy Days when we all, regardless of status, money or power, are equal before God. In the Mishnah, a text from the first couple of centuries of the common era, we find mention of Yom Kippur being a time to wear white (Taanit 4:8):
“Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said: there were no better festive days for Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, for on them the daughters of Jerusalem would go forth dressed in borrowed white garments, so as not to embarrass those who did not have any.”
In other words, to ensure the women all were regarded as equal to one another in public regardless of wealth, everyone borrowed white garments; consequently it was not clear who was from the ‘haves’ and who was from the ‘have nots’. At least economic disadvantage could not be a factor that divided the community at these joyous times. The kittel serves a similar function – it is a simple garment, in which we are buried; its simplicity is part and parcel of our focus on the days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.
3) Finally, the Kittel reminds us of how we stand between life and death in this period. On Yom Kippur in particular, but during the whole Ten Days of Repentance (from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur), we stand with our lives in the balance. I do not believe in a God who will literally write us in the book of life or death, but I do believe in holding my life to account. During some of the holiest days of our calendar it is as if we are in limbo – we stand outside of day to day life (hence one reason for the fast at Yom Kippur) and we confront our own mortality. We only have a finite number of days on earth and the Days of Awe compel us to think about the choices we make, the opportunities we are presented with and what we can make of our lives before we are brought to our final resting place. We face our own death throughout the day and, right before the concluding service, we remember those who shared this world with us in years gone by in the memorial service. The word ‘liminality’ sums this up for me, we stand on the border between life and death. Moreover, the fragility of life hammers down upon us as we recite the names of loved ones, so this liminal experience is both figurative and literal. The kittel makes it personal, it is not just those around me praying in the pews or listening to my sermons, it is me too.
As I don the garment in which I may be buried, I experience a moment for a completely personal identification with the day – a moment that no-one else shares with me as I fasten the buttons in my office. I confront the day of my death and pray that I have many opportunities to make something more of my life in the days to come, for me and for my family. I pray that I may lead the community with sincerity and devotion, knowing that I too am guilty. Therefore, wearing a kittel may be a selfish choice, but I hope it also enhances my ability to lead the prayers in a genuine way and steer the community in their own spiritual search.
For me, there are some rituals which provide a vocabulary for connecting with the great questions of life, that point towards meanings on which we cannot always put our finger, that join us with generations of Jews in time and across the world. The kittel is just such a personal ritual object that I hope also points towards something for the community too. On days when we fill our time in the sanctuary with words of our machzor there remain ideas which words cannot always adequately express – the kittel reflects just some of those ideas. However, let me also be clear that this is not a fundamentalist position, I don’t want everyone to wear a kittel, wear white or, God forbid, believe the same as me. I don’t want you to change your custom nor do I hope for a gradual creep towards everyone wearing white. I make no judgement of others who do not wear a kittel or white robe and I am humbled when I am joined on the bimah by colleagues and members who express sincerity in their engagement with the ideas of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and who do not wear white or a kittel. There are plenty of ways we can bring the message of the High Holy Days into our lives – repentance, prayer and tzedakah being just three. Wearing a kittel is a personal choice that reflects a personal search for integrity as a religious leader during the Days of Awe and I hope this brief-ish article goes some way to explain my choice and the background to the custom.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah – May you be inscribed for goodness in the year ahead.
If you want to read a couple of other rabbis and colleagues writing about the Kittel look here:
Rabbi Josh Levy: http://bit.ly/OeWhfu; http://bit.ly/PtemmX
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson: http://bit.ly/S7Jkiq