There is a custom is to wear white clothing, or more specifically, a white robe-like garment called a kittel, on Yom Kippur.

In many communities, the kittel is worn exclusively on Yom Kippur. In some traditions, the custom is to wear white on Rosh Hashanah and other occasions. Others have the custom that only the chazzan wears white on Rosh Hashanah.

Here are the classic reasons for this ancient custom.

On Yom Kippur We Are Like Angels

On Yom Kippur, we rise above our physical bodily needs. We refrain from eating and drinking, and instead focus on returning to our spiritual and pure essence. Thus, we resemble the angels, and so we wear a white kittel to reflect this purity.1 For this reason, some prefer a linen kittel, since the prophets Ezekiel2 and Daniel3 describe the angels as wearing linen.4

According to many commentaries, this is the main reason for wearing a kittel. This would explain why many communities, including Chabad, only wear a kittel on Yom Kippur, the day we resemble the angels.5

It Reminds Us of Death

Others explain that since Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a day dedicated to introspection and repentance, we wear a kittel, which resembles a burial shroud. (In fact, in Yiddish, kittel can also mean “burial shroud.” This is another reason some wear a kittel made of linen, since burial shrouds are preferably made of linen.) Wearing it on Yom Kippur humbles our hearts, reminding us of our mortality and the need for repentance.6

We Are as Pure as Snow

Rabbi David ibn Zimra, known as the Radbaz (1479-1589), explains that we wear white on Yom Kippur based on the verse “If your sins prove to be like crimson, they will become white as snow; if they prove to be as red as crimson dye, they shall become as wool.”7 8

The Kittel is Like the Garments of the High Priest

Ordinarily, during the year, the high priest (Kohen Gadol) would wear a set of eight colorful and ornate garments while serving in the Holy Temple. The Yom Kippur service, however, was performed in simple garments of white. To relive this, we wear white garments on Yom Kippur.9

We Honor the Day With a Special Garment

The Talmud describes how the Exilarch once asked Rav Hamnuna: “What is the meaning of the verse ‘The holy of G‑d is honored?’10” Rav Hamnuna replied that it is a reference to the holy day of Yom Kippur, when there is no eating or drinking, and the Torah enjoins us to honor it with a clean (white11) garment.12

Now, we must honor every Shabbat or holiday with special, clean garments. Yet the commentaries explain that Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, is especially deserving of special garments,13 which some explain to be the kittel.14

The Daughters of Jerusalem Wore White

The Mishnah states, “Never were there more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur, when the maidens of Jerusalem used to go out dressed in white garments. They used borrowed garments in order not to embarrass those who did not have their own.”15

Why were the maidens dancing on Yom Kippur?

The Talmud explains that Yom Kippur is considered a festive day, for it is the day that G‑d forgave the Jews for the sin of the golden calf and Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the second set of Luchot (Tablets). Therefore, G‑d established Yom Kippur as a day of forgiveness.16 17

Thus, the kittel is reflective of the white dresses worn on this day many years ago.

We Show That We Are Confident

Some explain that the custom18 is based on the Midrash that states, “What nation is like this nation! Generally, when a person must appear before the court, he wears black clothing, covers himself in black, and lets his hair grow wild, for he does not know the outcome of the judgment. But not so Israel, who wear white [clothing], robe themselves in white, cut their hair, and eat and drink and are joyful, knowing that G‑d, blessed be He, performs miracles for them.”19

May we all celebrate this Yom Kippur, assured that we will have a sweet new year!