What is a Kittel?

The white shroud takes its wearer from marriage to death

What is a kittel?

A unique white robe-like garment, the kittel is worn by Jews on special days and during specific lifecycle events.

Meaning

Kittel (also ​kitl) is Yiddish for robe or coat and is white and has no pockets. In western Europe it was known as a sargenes, which comes from the Old French serge and Latin serica. Today, the term has fallen out of use except in some communities in Washington Heights in New York.

Coloring

The white color is meant to symbolize purity, which is one reason why it is used during weddings. The pure color is also believed to relate to the groom's unity with the bride (who also wears white), as well as the beginnings of a new life together. Also, because the kittel has no pockets, it shows that the groom cannot have anything of value in his pockets, so the couple is marrying for love and not what they possess. (The bride comes to the chuppah, or wedding canopy, without any jewelry for this very reason.)

Use and Symbolism

The white robe is worn by a Jewish man on his wedding day, is used as a burial shroud, and is worn on different Jewish holidays depending on customs. Jewish law dictates that the dead should be buried without anything of value in a simple pine box, to assure equality, so the kittel has been used as a burial shroud. 

Jewish men also wear the kittel on Yom Kippur, and, in some instances, they wear it also on Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish new year.

Wearing the white robe on the High Holidays is linked to its use as a burial garment and to the verse in Isaiah that

Although your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow (1:18). 

According to this verse, the kittel would appear to be appropriate for Yom Kippur, when we're cleansed of our sins.

The reasoning behind wearing it on Rosh Hashanah is to exude the confidence that their sins will be forgiven on Yom Kippur (Mateh Moshe). Interestingly, at one point silver belt buckles engraved with Biblical quotes that refer to the Day of Atonement were used to tie off the kittel. This seems to contradict the simplicity and purity of the garment, however. 

In some communities, the cantor, or chazzan, wears the special white robe during specific services throughout the year, including 

In many communities, Jewish men wear the kittel at the Passover seder. Generally, the kittel is worn because it symbolizes purity, as Jews are understood to have a closeness to God and to be in a more pure state on the night that celebrates Freedom. 

There are many other reasons behind this tradition, and some of the reasons and sources include,

  • It is the garment of dead people.  We wear it to avoid getting too haughty over the joy of Pesach.  (Taz/Mogen Avrohom)
  • Bnei Yisroel was redeemed from Mitzrayim because they did not change their traditional dress.  A Kittel is not a garment of a non-Jew. (Rav Pinchos of Koritz)
  • White is the color of the bigdei kehuna ​(priestly garments).  On [seder night] we are elevated to the status of a kohen (priest). (Rav Yehonoson Shteiff)