Menachem Creditor

White Robes and Infinity

kittelThe first time I ever wore a kittel was as a rabbinical student, officiating at my father’s shul in Richmond, VA for the “overflow” High Holidays service.

It felt weird for a number of reasons: a) I had never worn one before, and b) it was the kittel my father wore at my parents’ wedding.

That kittel, and the one I helped pick out for my closest friend’s wedding, are very much like the one I ended up wearing at my own wedding: something like a hybrid between a choir robe and a lab coat, with a big collar embroidered with what looks like Aztec pictographs – not exactly my style of clothing.

But I’ve begun to love it. And the more comfortable I become wearing a kittel, the more mysterious it becomes. Just for a moment, I’d like to explain why I wish every Jew would take advantage of their opportunity to wear a kittel.

We traditionally wear a kittel on several important occasions: on Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, at one’s own wedding, and for burial. Kittels communicate a number of messages:

  1. White is a symbol of purity – the purity we hope to achieve through teshuva and prayer.
  2. The kittel is a symbol of equality. During “kittel-moments” we are reminded that no one has superior access to God.
  3. The kittel is also a reminder that we will one day die. On Rosh HaShannah we and the world are born anew, on Yom Kippur we abstain from life-giving actions to remind ourselves not to wait until we die to self-actualize and connect, on Pesach the slave in us dies as we are reborn as free people, and at our weddings we leave our prior selves behind as we begin new lives as couples.

The power of the kittel is not in its majesty: it is in its simplicity. A royal-looking kittel is a contradiction. So too is the idea that only rabbis or cantors can (or should) wear a kittel.

The necessity of entering the simple white-ness of the kittel can be illuminated by connecting the Talmud to Sir Isaac Newton.

Regarding the mysterious properties of white clothing the Talmud states:

… It was taught: In the year in which Shimon HaTzaddik died he foretold his own death. [His students] said to him, `How do you know?’ He replied. `Every Yom Kippur there met me an old man, dressed in white and wrapped in white, who entered with me into the Holy of Holies and left with me; but this year there met me an old man, dressed in black and wrapped in black, who entered with me but did not leave with me’. (Menachot 109b)

In 1666 Sir Isaac Newton showed that white light was composed of colored light by passing a beam of light through a glass prism, dispersing the light into a spectrum of colors (being the same principle as to how rainbows are formed after it rains). Black is the result of removing light. While color, according to Newton, is the mind’s translation of the few wavelengths we can perceive out of the infinite number hidden within white, black is the absence of all “translatable” potential.

The Talmud’s tale of the mysterious man connects the mysterious man in white to an intensely holy space. Disconnecting white from the experience signals that life is about to end. Perhaps Newton would suggest that the loss of “whiteness” (unlimited possibility) ultimately results in “blackness” (the absence of possibility).

Rabbi Jack Moline once wrote:

Imagine looking across the congregation and seeing a sea of white …Imagine the true equality of each collection of prayers and meditations …And imagine the ability to focus more directly on prayer and repentance without the distraction of concern about personal appearance. (“The Whole Kittel and Caboodle”)

When we see what is before us, we are only seeing a portion of the infinite light around us. Clothing is the most evident representation of our society’s focus on the “see-able.”

During certain moments of a Jewish life we wear white.

May we, together, step humbly into infinity, and truly enter into the embrace of God.

About the Author
Rabbi Menachem Creditor serves as the Pearl and Ira Meyer Scholar in Residence at UJA-Federation New York and was the founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence. An acclaimed author, scholar, and speaker with over 2 million views of his online videos and essays, he was named by Newsweek as one of the fifty most influential rabbis in America. His 31 books and 6 albums of original music include "A Year of Torah," the global anthem "Olam Chesed Yibaneh" and the COVID-era 2-volume anthology "When We Turned Within." He and his wife Neshama Carlebach live in New York, where they are raising their five children.