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.