The time-honored Jewish custom is to bury our departed in (inexpensive) linen shrouds. This dates back two millennia to the times of Rabban Gamliel the Elder in the early 1st century.

The Talmud1 relates that in his time there was such social pressure to procure expensive shrouds that the strain it placed on families was even more painful than death itself. Things got so bad that families would sometimes abandon the corpse rather than provide the deceased with socially acceptable shrouds.

Seeing that the situation was untenable, Rabban Gamliel asked that he be buried in simple linen. Once the stigma was broken and this was seen as a viable option, it soon became standard for all, from the very rich to the very poor, to be buried in simple linen.

In fact, in the generations that followed, it even became acceptable to bury the dead in plain hemp garments (tzerada) that only cost a dinar.

Dress for Success

Why is the custom to specifically bury the dead in white shrouds?

It is a basic tenet of Judaism that the dead will rise once again. The Talmud explains that when this happens, people will wear whatever they wore at the time of burial. Thus, Rabbi Yochanan asked that he be buried in neutral colors so that if he would be punished for his sins, he would not stand out among his fellow penitents (who would be wearing black), and if he would be rewarded for his good deeds, he would not stand out among the righteous (who would be draped in white).

Rabbi Josiah, who was confident that he lived a good life and would be rewarded in the World to Come, asked that he be buried in freshly ironed white shrouds.2

In a similar vein, Rabbi Yirmiyah instructed: "Dress me in white shrouds that are sewn properly. Dress me in what I would wear during my life. Put shoes on my feet, a stick in my hand and place me on my side, so that when Moshiach comes, I will be ready to greet him.”

Following this, it became the custom to use white shrouds.3

The High Priest on Yom Kippur

It is customary that not only the shroud, but even the threads used to sew the pieces together, should all be made of white linen.4

The mystics5 explain that “there is a great secret” behind this custom. As the soul embarks on its journey heavenward, being dressed in pure white linen, with nothing else mixed in, serves as a spiritual protection against any impurity or evil forces.

This is reminiscent of the white linen garments worn on Yom Kippur by the High Priest (who ordinarily wore colorful clothing containing gold and precious gems). As he played his pivotal role in securing a good year for the universe, wearing pure white linen provided the protection he needed.

On a related note, some associate the linen shroud with the white linen uniform that both the (ordinary) priests wore when entering the Holy Temple (the holiest point in the Temple that they were permitted to go) as well as the High Priest when entering the Holy of Holies (the holiest point that he was permitted to go). When a person passes away and his soul ascends heavenward, he or she is compared to a priest entering G‑d’s sacred abode.6

Faith in Judgment

Regarding wearing white on Yom Kippur, the Midrash 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.”7

In the same way, the deceased is dressed in white, demonstrating our faith that our Father in heaven will judge mercifully.8

Easing the Journey

“For dust you are and to dust you shall return,” says the verse in Genesis.9 Linen disintegrates quickly, some explain, allowing the soul to quickly divest itself from its earthly trappings and ascend on high.10

Keep It Natural

Alternatively, wearing linen, which grows naturally from the ground, expresses our belief that the dead will one day sprout from the ground and come to life. As the Talmud explains, people will “awake” with the clothes they were buried in. Even when performing miracles, G‑d prefers to act through nature—which is itself a creation of G‑d. Thus, wearing something that grew from the earth makes the process just a tad more natural than if wool or silk would have needed to regenerate.11

May we merit the time when G‑d will wipe away death and tears from this world, with the coming of Moshiach and the resurrection of the dead!