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Why Do Jewish Brides Wear White? Isn’t It a Non-Jewish Thing?

Why Do Jewish Brides Wear White? Isn’t It a Non-Jewish Thing?

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Question:

I always thought that that the idea of a bride wearing white was an ancient Jewish custom related to virginity and purity. However, I recently read an article on the Internet that said that this tradition actually originated with Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century. If this is so, why are Jews so keen on the white dress?

Reply:

Like many things you read on the Internet, this assertion needs to be taken with more than just a few grains of salt. Let’s clear up some misconceptions regarding wearing white at a Jewish wedding.

This custom predates Queen Victoria by at least 500 years. Rabbi Aaron ben Jacob ha-Kohen, who lived through the expulsion of the Jews from France in 1306, writes in in his famous work Orchot Chaim that the custom is to cover both the bride and groom in white.1 We also find that Rabbi David ibn Zimra, known as the Radbaz (b. 1479), cites an “ancient custom” within the Egyptian Jewish community for both the bride and groom to wear white at the wedding.2

Note that the custom is not just for the bride to wear white. Indeed, the groom traditionally wears a white kittel (robe) or tallit during the marriage ceremony.3 According to some sources, the groom’s white clothing is the primary custom,4 or even the only custom.5

However, it is usually more noticeable that the bride is wearing white, since some have the custom for a groom to wear a coat over the kittel.6

The Reasons

Now that we’ve established that wearing white at weddings has a long history, let’s examine the reasons for this custom:

Preparing for the Future

The Orchot Chaim says that the reason for wearing white at the wedding is based on the juxtaposition of two verses in Ecclesiastes: “At all times, let your garments be white . . .” and “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love.”7 8

What do white garments have to do with enjoying life with a new wife?

The sages say that white garments, clean and fit for a banquet, are like the good deeds we do here on earth, with which we will go to the ultimate banquet in the world to come.9 So when establishing our new Jewish home, we are reminded of the most important component: good deeds. The furniture and silverware and joint bank accounts will remain in this world, but our good deeds will stay with us into the next world.

A Personal Yom Kippur

Our sages tell us that one’s wedding day is considered like a personal Yom Kippur, when his or her sins are forgiven.10 Based on the verse “If your sins prove to be like crimson, they will become white as snow,”11 we wear white to show that our sins are being forgiven, just like on Yom Kippur.12

Wearing Shrouds to a Wedding

On a related note, some explain that the reason for wearing white is to remind us of burial shrouds. Bearing in mind that the wedding is a personal Yom Kippur, we wear white shroud-like garments to remind us of our eventual death and to arouse us to repentance.13

Together Until the End

Noting the resemblance to white burial shrouds, some explain that we wear white as a good omen that the couple will remain together until death.14

Back to Queen Victoria

Even though the Jewish custom of wearing white predates the Victorian era, there is one way that Queen Victoria did affect the custom: some brides are now careful not to wear a pure white dress to their wedding, lest it resemble too closely what has now become a non-Jewish custom, and instead wear an off-white dress.15

So the next time you see a bride wearing white, think of Yom Kippur, the world to come, and the grand chain of Jewish tradition that will remain unbroken for the rest of time.

Footnotes
1.
Orchot Chaim, Hilchot Kiddushin 21; see also Responsa of Maharam Mintz 109.
2.
Responsa of Radbaz 2:693.
3.
See Rabbi Moshe ben Avraham (1550–1606), Mateh Moshe, Hilchot Hachnasat Kallah 2.
4.
Ibid.
5.
Likkutei Maharich, vol. 3, Seder Nisuin.
6.
Shaarei Halachah u-Minhag, Even ha-Ezer, p. 118; Responsa Naharei Afarsemon, Yoreh De’ah 22.
8.
Orchot Chaim, Hilchot Kiddushin 21.
9.
Talmud, Shabbat 153a, cited in Rashi, Ecclesiastes 9:8.
10.
Talmud, Yevamot 63b.
12.
Mateh Moshe, Hilchot Hachnasat Kallah 2; Divrei David 1.
13.
Responsa of Maharam Mintz 109; Likkutei Maharich vol. 3, Seder Nisuin.
14.
Responsa Naharei Afarsemon, Yoreh De’ah 26.
15.
See Nit’ei Gavriel, Hilchot Nisuin, vol. 1, p. 114, fn. #4.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Discussion (9)
January 2, 2016
off white
Comes to mind that my wedding dress was a cream color...who knew that I was a fashion maven?
louise leon
PA, USA
December 27, 2015
the Rebbetzins
thank you for your informative article. I met several brides in Chabad who have worn off white gowns because the Rebbetzin(s) wore this color. Is this just a custom of the Rebbetzin or should this custom be adopted?
Goldie
Eretz Yisroel
November 30, 2015
Is no one going to mention the common perception?
The white as I grew up i the 50's represented virginity , purity, My Mother was astounded that a couple was living together the bride would have the audacity to wear white. I guess that what they thought in 1930; times and those morals have disappeared.
Anonymous
November 29, 2015
yikes
If wedding ceremonies are personal days of atonement and the forgiving of our sins....why not think of having several such opportunities !
Anonymous
NYC
November 28, 2015
Non-Jews do it
A minhag to wear off-white because Queen Victoria wore white?? You taught us that Jews were doing it at least 500 years sooner. And didn't all the unmarried women wear white for the 15th of Av? I am always bothered to learn that Jews stop doing something they always did, because non-Jews also have that minhag: We don't say Tachanun prostrate any longer, because that is how Moslems pray. If we discover some idolatrous tribe in Africa that prays by taking three steps forward, keeping their feet together, and then backing up three steps at the end, will be stop doing that, too? I'm not very impressed by the off-white solution to a supposed "problem."
David Freedman
New York
November 27, 2015
Bridal Costuming
Mostly, brides wear clothing that conforms to local assimilated cultural expectations. I had a postcard showing a drawing of a Morraccan Jewish bride which had some white, but also red, gold coins and other heavily embroidered colors. I suspect that, say, some Indian Jewish brides wear Indian wedding saris.
Patricia C Vener-Saavedra
Hamden
chabadofhamden.com
November 26, 2015
I believe that both are actually correct. It was Queen Victoria who popularized the wearing of white wedding dresses for non-Jewish weddings. But in terms of Jewish weddings, white has been worn for much, if not all, ceremonies.
Mindi
Richmond
November 26, 2015
tu b av
Rabbi Shurpin,
I am wondering if the picture of girls in white dresses comes from what is done now or if perhaps it goes back to then too? The girls would exchange white (?) dresses with each other and go out to find their mate.
Thanks in advance for your response.
miriam
pa
November 25, 2015
Hi
Interesting article about the history behind the white wedding dress. All your references may be correct, but what is the real reason why the bride and groom should wear white? White represents sharing. White reflects light, not absorb it. The bride shows endless desire to share with her groom and not be self absorbed. Also why the Talit is white and we should wear white on Shabbat and Jewish Holidays...all the best 👍🏻
Anonymous
Tx