There is a custom in our tradition to wear a Kittel (robe) or white clothing during Yom Kippur. What is the meaning of this custom? There are many explanations. I will discuss some of them here.
1) White like purity: The color white symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise that is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Is. 1:18). During Yom Kippur we fast, we pray with devotion and we repent from our sins, trying to purify our souls. Through our actions we try to change the scarlet of our sins to white. Therefore, we wear white clothing, showing our hope to become pure people.
2) White like the angels: On Yom Kippur, we rise above our physical bodily needs. We refrain from eating and drinking, from bathing and having sexual relationships, looking to connect mainly to our soul. Thus, we resemble the angels, spiritual beings, wearing white clothing during Yom Kippur.
3) White like the burial shroud: Since Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a day dedicated to introspection and repentance, we wear a Kittel, which resembles a burial shroud. Wearing it on Yom Kippur may help us to humble our hearts, reminding us of our mortality and the need for repentance.
4) White like the garments of the Cohen Hagadol: Ordinarily, during the year, the High Priest (Cohen HaGadol) would wear a set of eight colorful and ornate garments while serving in the Holy Temple. During the Yom Kippur service, however, he was dressed in simple garments of white. To relive this, we wear white garments on Yom Kippur.
5) White as unity: Many times, the clothing represents the social status of the person and marks differences and barriers among us. When all the congregants wear clothing of the same color, we see each other as human beings, despite the differences, and we can feel that all of us are sisters and brothers with the same needs and wishes.
6) White as a powerful and spiritual experience: All the congregants in the synagogue wearing white clothing creates a powerful and sacred space that encourages us to pray with fervor and devotion, living a spiritual and moving experience.
Therefore, I encourage you this year to wear a Kittel or white clothing so that we can experience, all together as a community, these beautiful reasons that our tradition gives us for wearing white clothing during Yom Kippur.
Gmar Chatima Tova!