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By Ansley Roan
NEW YORK (RNS)– When Rabbi Amy Small arrives at the Beth Hatikvah synagogue in Summit, N.J., on Sept. 21, she will not follow her usual routine because Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sundown.
In preparation for the special services she’ll lead that night, she’ll put on a white top and a white skirt. Then, she’ll reach for something she wears only on this most solemn day of the Jewish year, and on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
She’ll put her arms through the sleeves of her kittel, a simple white garment with no pockets, and enter into what she calls “a space of holiness.”
“It feels like this is a very powerful moment,” she said. “There’s something that washes over you that feels holy, in that holy means separate and distinct from the ordinary.”
Small is just one of those who have found the symbolic meaning of wearing a kittel on Yom Kippur. Its history as a wedding garment and a burial shroud, its color, its design, and its somewhat mysterious origins all contribute to its symbolic significance. Those who choose to wear a kittel — whether they are rabbis or laypeople — discover their own meanings, but say it contributes to the solemnity of the holiday.
“We begin by wearing this white kittel Yom Kippur night,” said Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. “It is as if you are preparing your body for death. The rest of Yom Kippur day, you are like you’re dead — you don’t eat, you don’t drink, you don’t engage in sex.”
All of those practices help people think about their own mortality, which is a significant aspect of Yom Kippur, said Small, who leads a Reconstructionist congregation.
“Part of what comes out of that reflection is a fear of death,” Small said. “The holidays are intended to move that into something much deeper spiritually, about the value of faith in transforming our life.”
The kittel has evolved as a symbol of both faith and mortality.
Traditionally, men received a kittel on their wedding day, wore it on Yom Kippur and some other holidays, and were buried in it. Within Orthodox circles, only married men don kittels for Yom Kippur. In the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, women may also wear a kittel.
The connection to mortality and faith is one that Rabbi Charles Savenor, an associate dean of the rabbinical school at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, finds powerful.
“It’s actually saying in a very real way that our lives are fragile, that a lot of things are just not in our hands,” Savenor said. “We’re saying that we’re partners with God in steering our future, but we are not the only pilot.”
Many who are familiar with the kittel say even its design can be meaningful. “It has no pockets because when we’re leaving the world, we’re not taking anything with us,” said Rabbi Moshe Elefant of the Orthodox Union.
Those who wear a kittel at Yom Kippur may find different meanings for its symbolism because there’s no definitive explanation for it.
“It’s one of those customs, everybody knows you do it, and no one’s quite sure where it came from,” Hoffman said. “That’s why the symbolism is so diverse.”
In the Talmud, there’s a mention from around the fourth century of wearing dark sackcloth and ashes when standing before a ruler for judgment, Hoffman said.
“You want to indicate to the ruler how penitent you are, because you probably figure it’s going to end poorly anyway,” he said. “Our source says just the opposite with regard to standing before God in prayer. We dress in white because we have faith that God will judge us for good.”
The color white and its connection to purity may be the most ancient aspect of the kittel’s symbolism, said Hoffman. He also mentioned a biblical passage that refers to God making sins that were like scarlet as white as snow.
Even in synagogues where few, if any, wear the kittel, many in the congregation will wear white. Rabbi Mary Zamore, an associate rabbi at B’nai Or, a Reform congregation in Morristown, N.J., doesn’t wear a kittel on Yom Kippur, but she does wear white liturgical robes.
“If everyone is dressed the same it’s an equalizing force,” she said. “On Yom Kippur, we are all equal at that moment of facing the judgment and renewing ourselves.”
In addition to the connections with mortality, purity and humility, the kittel’s association with marriage is also meaningful on Yom Kippur, Savenor said.
“This is my interpretation, but the kittel is in some ways a symbol of the joy that we have this special relationship with God,” he said.
“But every relationship comes with responsibilities, it’s not just how we feel about God or how God feels about us, but how are we measuring up?”
For all its symbolism, the kittel is just one small part of Yom Kippur observances. Many Jews may never wear a kittel. But many more will acknowledge the significance of Yom Kippur as time of reflection, repentance, and, ultimately renewal.
“For the final service, at the end of Yom Kippur day, you don’t wear the kittel any more,” Hoffman said. “It’s as if you realize you’re really not going to die, that in fact, God has pardoned you and you’re granted new life.”

Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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