With summer drawing to an end, you have probably begun to think about your fall wardrobe. Whether you are planning for the kids to go back to school, looking at your business clothes for work or thinking about the annual pilgrimage to warmer climates, among the items you will likely seek are outfits for the High Holy Days.
American Jewish folklore is filled with remembrances of High Holy Day fashion. Some of it celebrates the special feeling of reflecting the new start of the year with a new outfit. Some of it satirizes the excesses which can stand in contrast to the message of the season. I would like to suggest a different approach to dressing for these special days, especially for Yom Kippur.
The kittel is a simple white garment, similar to a robe or an oversized shirt. In traditional circles it is worn by the groom on his wedding day, by the leader of the seder on Pesach and by the chazzan when chanting the prayers for rain and dew in the fall and spring. In the case of the groom, he presents himself to the bride untainted by devotion to anyone else. It represents the aspiration to purity of intention and devotion. In the case of the leader of the seder, the garment symbolizes the unblemished offering of the paschal lamb by the priests, now ritualized by the order of the meal. In the case of the prayers for water, the kittel expresses the hopes that God will provide rain or dew on the merits of a single people.
Chazzan Tasat and I wear a kittel for the High Holy Days. As the facilitators of congregational worship, our clothes represent the clean slate to which we all aspire, as well as the attributes mentioned above. The simplicity of the kittel is also meant to remove a source of distraction from us and from you. But wearing a kittel is not limited to the functionaries of the service. Indeed, the tradition is open to everyone. I would like to encourage you to follow the custom this year and in years to come.
Imagine looking across the congregation and seeing a sea of white representing our desire to be purged of our sins. Imagine the true equality of each collection of prayers and meditations represented by the simple uniformity of garb. And imagine the ability to focus more directly on prayer and repentance without the distraction of concern about personal appearance.
We are blessed with a congregation which knows the difference between appropriate and ostentatious dress, so this suggestion does not come to remedy some continuing excess. But the ability to wear a kittel, which costs about $50, over the three days of the Holy Days, may enable you to devote the balance of your clothing budget to more pressing needs in your life or in the community. (As a courtesy, information about ordering a kittel is below.)
If you choose, as most will, to wear our usual Western clothing, please consider dressing in white or light-colored clothes for Yom Kippur (even though it is well after Labor Day).
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that the kittel resembles the tachrichin (shrouds) used to clothe the dead. Our willingness to present ourselves as being in God’s hands is a statement of faith that we will be restored to life by repentance, prayer and tzedakah.