The story of the 'kittel'

A bride buys her groom a garment meant for his entire Jewish life.

kittel 88 (photo credit: )
kittel 88
(photo credit: )
It's two months till the Big Day, or what we've more accurately termed D-Day. In plainer terms, I'm getting married at the end of May. Now four months into the engagement, we've got a place, a caterer, a band and a photographer, we've chosen the invitations and found a big white dress for me and a sleek new suit for him. Next on the never-ending checklist? The kittel. Not to be confused with the tunic worn in the Middle Ages known as the kirtle, the kittel is a white ceremonial robe worn by religious Jewish men on certain special occasions, starting with their wedding day. Moshe, my fiance, decided he wanted to wear one under the huppa because his father did, and so did mine, and so, he said, he would continue the family tradition. "A wedding is the day that you start your new life together as husband and wife," he explained to me. "You're supposed to be totally pure on the day of your wedding, and wearing white symbolizes that new, clean start." So one sunny morning, we decide to make our way to Mea She'arim, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem where everything from mezuzot to tefillin to halla covers can be found and purchased at what's very often the lowest price. Wary of the large signs banning anyone dressed immodestly, I outfit myself with a skirt that sweeps the floor and a sweater that covers everything else and we venture into the unknown territory. Along the busy main street, filled with stores selling every piece of Judaica imaginable, alongside bakeries, kitchen suppliers and women's clothing stores, we find a shop with siddurim and tzitzit in the window and decide it's a good place to start. "Yes, can I help you?" inquires the elderly man with the long white beard standing behind the counter in the crowded shop. Over the shouts of other patrons, Moshe asks whether he has any kittels, and the man's steel blue eyes light up in excitement. "Ah, you are getting married?" "Yes," Moshe replies, chuckling to himself and nodding his head. "Mazal tov! It should be with mazal. Of course we have kittels. Yossi, show him the kittels," he shouts to a younger man climbing down a ladder in the back of the shop. "What size are you?" Yossi asks, grabbing a bunch of white packages from a top shelf. As he and Moshe discuss sizes, the elderly man proudly tells me that in buying Moshe a kittel, I'm continuing a tradition that has existed for centuries. In his shop, the kittels sell for NIS 100 to NIS 160, a price range found in most stores in the area. (On-line, one can purchase embroidered kittels for as much as $200.) But silly me, I point out that I didn't realize I was the one doing the buying. "But the kala [bride] is supposed to buy the hatan [groom] his kittel," he replies matter-of-factly, explaining that the tradition behind the woman giving her soon-to-be-husband a kittel goes all the way back to Adam and Eve and the famous story of the forbidden fruit. Every man has a spark of Adam in him, and every woman of Eve, he says. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were innocent until she caused him to sin by giving him to eat of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. After that, they realized they were naked and in shame attempted to fashion clothes and cover themselves. Today, he continues, a woman gives her future husband this white garment to cover himself, thereby rectifying her primal sin. "It's a very beautiful custom, and it's beautiful for you to continue it, and," he adds, "he will wear it for the rest of his life." After the wedding day, the kittel is also customarily worn on Pessah, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and, according to Prof. Daniel Sperber of the Jewish Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University, its symbolic meaning is linked between these holidays and its appearance under the huppa. In Jewish tradition, the dead are wrapped in a white shroud before burial, and when worn on the High Holy Days, the kittel represents the idea that we are being judged before God and are not sure whether we will live or die. Similarly, adds the shop owner, the kittel must be white to remind the groom on his wedding day of the day of his death, so that he won't be too prideful or egotistic and will remember the constant need to repent. The white of the kittel is also meant to parallel the white dress of the bride and symbolize absolute purity. Dressed in white, on all these occasions we are like the angels, says Sperber, and just as angels have no sins, we beg to be forgiven for all of ours, in keeping the biblical verse "our sins shall be made as white as snow" (Isaiah 1:18). The groom under the huppa is also compared to the high priest, who on Yom Kippur wore not his elaborate gold robe but a simple white one upon entering the Holy of Holies to atone for all the sins of Israel. So too, under the huppa, before the bride and groom begin their new life together, they wear white to banish all their sins and start fresh together. Sperber traces the Ashkenazic tradition of wearing the kittel back to the 12th and 13th centuries. About 30 years ago, some Sephardic Jews began to take on the tradition as well, but only for the High Holy Days. Though the kittel must be entirely white, many shops sell them with white embroidery on the edges and some even with silver, says the store owner, because it is similar enough to white. It is forbidden, however, for the kittel to have gold on it, he adds, because gold recalls the sin of the golden calf. And it doesn't matter whether the kittel is made of cotton, polyester or even silk, he emphasizes, as long as it is white. The kittel makes its final appearance of the year on the night of the Pessah Seder, where this time the white is meant to represent our release from bondage to a life of freedom. Other sources say it's worn because of the paradox of its appearance on both the happiest day of a man's life, his wedding day, and the saddest, the day of his death - symbolizing the paradox between our slavery in Egypt and our liberation. Back in the shop, after rummaging around piles and piles of packages of kittels, Yossi hands Moshe the one we want - no embroidery, no silver, just simple white cotton - and Moshe ties it around his waist. He does look very holy, I think to myself, and realize that while he won't be wearing it this Pessah, the next time I'll see him in it will be under the huppa on our wedding day.