Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
Soon we will gather again for the awesome journey of Yom Kippur. For those who are interested, here are explanations of three Yom Kippur customs: wearing white, wearing a tallit for Kol Nidre, and avoiding leather.
Why do we wear white on Yom Kippur?
Some say that we wear white on Yom Kippur to be like the angels. We yearn to ascend, to be lighter, more clear and transparent. Another interpretatation is that we wear white on Yom Kippur as an approximation of the white garments in which we will be buried. (Some of us may even wear a kittel, a simple white cotton robe, which is worn at marriage and for burial.) As members of our chevra kadisha know, every Jew is buried in the same simple shroud: plain white garments, the same for everyone, men and women, rich and poor. Wearing white is a reminder of our mortality.
Our tradition teaches that it is a mitzvah to make teshuvah, to repent and to clear one’s personal and interpersonal slate, the day before death. But how do any of us know when we will die? Aha, say the sages; then we must make teshuvah every day. And surely this is true. But there is something particularly special and meaningful about the teshuvah we make on Yom Kippur, perhaps because on this day we get in touch with our mortality. As we face death, we become more honest with ourselves, with others, and with God.
On Yom Kippur, wearing the garments we will wear when we die is a stark reminder that we stand every day on the edge of life and death.
Why do some Jews avoid wearing leather on Yom Kippur?
There is a custom on this day of avoiding wearing anything made of leather, because leather requires the death of a living creature. On this day when we make our most fervent teshuvah, we don’t want to be garbed in something which required another being’s death. For this reason, you will see some people wearing canvas shoes, or even rubber Crocs, instead of leather shoes. And, of course, you will also see others for whom this interpretation is not meaningful, and who do wear leather, and that’s fine too. Our congregation upholds the Reform value of informed choice; each of us is empowered to choose which observances we follow and how we do so.
Why do we wear a tallit at night for Kol Nidre?
Kol Nidre evening is one of the very few times in the Jewish year when a tallit is worn at night. (Though it should be donned before sunset — like the singing of Kol Nidre itself, which also must happen during the day, before Yom Kippur technically begins.) Ordinarily a tallit is only worn when it is light out and we can see the fringes.
There are many reasons why the tallit is worn at this unusual time of day. One is that we sing the Thirteen Attributes (“Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun“) at Kol Nidre services, and there is a very old custom which holds that a tallit should be worn when these are chanted. Another reason is that tallitot are frequently white, and when we wrap ourselves in white tallitot, we can see ourselves as being like the angels, garbed in white light.
For some, a tallit is also worn as a sign of transcendent consciousness; for others the tallit can be a stark reminder of death and the transient nature of physical existence, as the dead are often buried in a tallit in addition to the simple white garments and kittel.
Perhaps we wear tallitot at Kol Nidre because on that night, the “light” of our prayers and our connection with God burns so brightly that it illuminates us from within, and we can see our tzitzit gleaming in that holy light.
A final reason is this: we take the Torah scrolls out from the ark for the Kol Nidre prayer, to insure that our prayers are linked to Torah. The person leading the prayers at that time is flanked at both sides with people holding Torah scrolls. This is done to mimic a court, a “beyt din” of three, as a beyt din court is needed to annul vows. And when the scrolls are removed from the ark, it is traditional to wear a tallit.
If you are in town, I will see you at CBI for Erev Yom Kippur. Wherever you are, may you be inscribed for a year of life, prosperity and shalom.
Gmar chatimah tovah — May you be inscribed for the best of years!