Monday, March 30, 2009

Fancy Kittels, Mixed Messages, and the Tides of Symbolism


In an earlier post, which discussed Hiddur Mitzvah and conspicuous virtue, I wrote the following:

The expensively tailored frilly, lacy, kittel -- a garment that is supposed to remind us of the fragility of life and its inevitable end, a garment that symbolizes simplicity, humility, and the rejection of materialism -- is evidence of either obliviousness or insanity, and deserves a post of its own. And  some pictures.

1. Don't tell me about the enormously expensive white cloak worn by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, the Pilusin. That is entirely different: the wearing of that garment is an intrinsic part of his Temple service, and the garment is inherently holy.  Also, you don't bury him in them; on the contrary.  The garment is buried after Yom Kippur and never used again.

2. Please don't tell me about Rebbes that have silk-and-silver-trimmed, fur-collared Kittels. If there are, I don't want to know about it.

3. If your wife or your father in law bought your kittel for you, then it's not your fault. It just means they love you.

HOWEVER: Lakewood Guy mentioned that his wife wants to buy him a fancy kittel for the seder.  When he pointed out the incongruity of a fancy kittel, she said that he can use the fancy one for the seder,
and his simple Yom Kippur kittel for his funeral le'achar mei'ah ve'esrim shanim tovim ve'aruchim. It would seem that she is making a valid point, and that the symbolism of the kittel is not at all the same on those two occassions. On Yom Kippur, it symbolizes purity from sin and reminds us of the day of death.  For Yom Kippur, then, the kittel should be unadorned. At the Seder, it  symbolizes Cheirus, freedom, and there is no reason to not make it beautiful. Under the chuppah, well, whether it symbolizes yom hamissah depends on who you're marrying, and whether it symbolizes purity depends on why you're marrying her.

HOWEVER II: Unfortunately, the Taz in OC 472 SK 3 says that the reason we wear a kittel at the Seder is so that our simcha doesn't get out of hand, especially after drinking four cups of wine. We wear the kittel to temper our joy by reminding ourselves of the day of our death. The Taz was a Litvak. Anyway, I haven't found anyone that disagrees with the Taz. And he means it le'halacha, because he applies the reasoning to pasken that an Aveil may wear a kittel during the first year seder.  See Hilchos Yom Kippur, OC 610:4, Rama: we wear the kittel on Yom Kippur for two reasons: to symbolize angelic purity, and to remind ourselves that every passing second brings us closer to the abyss. There, too, the Taz says that the first reason would preclude an Aveil from wearing the kittel, while the second would allow it, and he follows the second reason.  So: I would like to agree with LakewoodGuy's wife. The Taz, on the other hand, says she's wrong. For the sake of a healthy marriage, I would say that our wives really don't need to know about the Taz; I know my wife would find the Taz surprising. So just be quiet and let her buy you a fancy kittel for the seder.

After I wrote this, LkwdGuy directed me to the Igros Moshe in Yoreh Deah 4 61:7, where he writes one thing I found surprising, and one thing I found remarkable.
Brief review of the teshuva: Can an aveil wear a kittel on Yom Kippur and Pesach. Answer-- there are two reasons we wear a kittel; one is joy and grandeur, Simcha and chashivus, that we are like malachei hashareis, the holy angels, and the other is to emphasize the somberness of remembering the yom hamisa and our shrouds. However, he says, the latter symbolism is utterly lost on the people of our time, and nobody gives a thought to the sobering idea of wearing the garment we will be buried in. Therefore, by default, the dominant semiotic is the former, that of simcha, and this is inappropriate for an aveil, and therefore he should not wear the kittel.

What I found interesting was his statement that the "malach" symbol applies to Pesach as well as Yom Kippur, when neither the Taz nor the Magen Avraham say that. The Taz only says "dual yom misah and malach" on Yom Kippur, but on Pesach says only yom misah. The Magen Avraham, who discourages an aveil from wearing the kittel on Pesach, does not say so because it is a symbol of chashivus and simcha, which he would if he held like Reb Moshe. Instead, he says that an aveil should not wear a kittel on Pesach because "belav hachi libo nichna," that even without the kittel his heart is humbled. If he held like Reb Moshe, he would have said that the reason for an aveil to not wear it is because of the malach/simcha/chashivus component. But no matter. Reb Moshe says it, and finished. I also found it in Rabbi Felder's sefer on Aveilus, Mourning and Remembrance, which is based on Reb Moshe's psakim.

Secondly, I found the Aruch Hashulchan in 610:2, in Hilchos Yom Kippur, that says a very similar thing. He brings the Taz about the dual symbolism, and says that, and I translate, "the main reason is because it is white and clean and a garment of honor. An additional reason is because the minhag is to use it to bury the dead, and so when wearing it, one remembers the day of death and this will help for teshuva. So an aveil should not wear it because he should not beautify himself during his aveilus." Hence, the Aruch Hashulchan is saying that the main purpose of the kittel is as a garment of honor. (I don't know if this is exactly like Reb Moshe; it seems to me that Reb Moshe, while agreeing to this in regard to current reality, would disagree as to which is the primary original meaning.)

The most remarkable thing in Reb Moshe's teshuva is his saying that the somber aspect of the kittel is, today, irrelevant, because people simply do not see it that way. Since people now see it more as a garment of honor and beauty, then that is what it means le'halachah, and it is therefore inappropriate for an aveil in the first year.

So, where do we stand? There are four interesting ideas that arise from our discussion.

1. The kittel communicates two completely different messages: the sobering reminder of how short and fleeting our lives are, and a joyous image of angelic beauty and grandeur. This one garment is intended to elicit two diametrically opposed emotions. (Rabbis: I highly recommend this topic for a drasah that discusses how the two are not, really, contradictory at all. While most relevant to Sukkos, when we beautifully decorate a dwelling that is inherently flimsy and temporary, it has relevance to the Seder as well, of course.)

2. Reb Moshe (regarding what the kittel means to the people of our time), and the Aruch Hashulchan (as a general matter), both say that the currently halachically dominant symbolism of the kittel is the second one, that of angelic beauty and grandeur, at least insofar as aveilim are concerned.

3. Therefore; according to the Aruch Hashulchan, there's nothing very wrong with a fancy kittel. It would, however, vitiate the second meaning of the kittel, and while he says the first meaning is the primary reason, that does not mean that the second reason does not exist at all. It is secondary, but still extant. The appropriate thing, then, would be to wear a kittel that can communicate both meanings. According to Reb Moshe, while a kittel really carries a somber message, it is inappropriate for Aveilim because it is perceived as a joyous garment. For the rules of the behavior of an aveilus, perception is more important than reality, because aveilus is kibbud and honor of the niftar, and honor is, by definition, subjective. So according to Reb Moshe, one might say that a fancy kittel is appropriate, or one might say that it is inappropriate, since inherently, the message is, at least partly, the reminder of yom hamissah, even if nobody knows or cares about that symbol.

But: I still say that there is no justification for totally tossing out the universally agreed meaning of the kittel as a mazkeres yom hamissah. The reasonable thing would be to wear a beged that comfortably comprises both symbolic meanings, a tabula rasa.  AND THAT MEANS A SIMPLE, ELEGANT KITTEL! 

4. I can be wrong too. “Certainty is not the test of certitude. We have been cocksure of many things that were not so.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
I would never read the Taz like Reb Moshe does, and the Magen Avraham almost certainly says like me, but my opinion against Reb Moshe's is a sneeze in a hurricane, and his teshuva and the Aruch Hashulchan can certainly be read as justifying fancy kittels. The Aruch Hashulchan doesn't mean that, and neither does Reb Moshe. But they can be read that way. So fancy kittels are not absurd; they are just wrong.

I still say that if your kittel is bespoke, it bespeaking about you.

  • The Maharal says that the Kittel is a celebratory expression of the joy and purity created by the Seder.  See Maharal page 41, where he talks about the color white being unadulterated and pure, and how this alludes to the geula which stemmed from the olam elyon without any isarusa d'le'eila or any olam hamurkav, whatever that means.
  • The Netziv in his Hagada, as told to me by Chaim B., says that you wear a Kittel whenever you eat korbanos, and so we wear it while we reenact achilas Korban Pesach. I haven't taken down the hagados yet, so I haven't seen it inside, but I assume the Netziv is referring to the interesting Rambam in 10 Klei Hamikdash, the very last halacha in Hilchos Klei Hamikdash, which I bring in the comments along with something from the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
  • The Malbim in his Hagada says from Reb Yechiel Heller that it comes from the Mechilta "Metzuyanim sham," because in Shabbos 145b it says that the Talmidei Chachamim in Bavel were metzuyanim in their clothing and Nedarim 20b, where it says that talmidei Chachamim are metzuyanim in their clothing like the malachei hashareis, and by malachim it says "levush habadim," and that means white.  Apparently, he means that the Jews in Mitzrayim wore white clothing.
  • The Sifsei Chachamim in Megilla 31a says it's a remez to techiyas hameisim, a reminder of the resurrection, which will take place during Nissan.
  • Rav Yosef Ber Soloveichik said that the Kittel is just another shinui. (I didn't see this inside, either, but if he said this, I think it's just not fair. As I've written elsewhere, when Chazal say that we do things at the seder just for shinui, they were not telling us the whole story. See
  • A Talmid, in the comments, says that Reb Leibaleh Eiger said that it symbolizes the levanim worn by a niddah, a zav, or a zavah, who is beginning the process of tahara, and we, too, are beginning the seven weeks of preparation for Matan Torah. I really, really have issues with this 'pshat,' and I would guess that even he didn't mean it seriously. But I'm doing a list, so who cares.
  • Bnei Yissaschar says that it recalls the fact Lo shinu malbusham, that wearing distinctive clothing in Mitzrayim helped us maintain our identity and contributed to the Geula.  This is like the Malbim.
  • Here's a creative one, quoted from a sefer called Mah Yakar, (I didn't see it inside, so I don't know which Mah Yakar it is.)  The Galus Mitzrayim was set into motion  by the envy engendered by Yosef's Kesones Pasim.  We wear a white, simple garment that first of all is by its simplicity and lack of color exactly the opposite of the Kesones Pasim, and also is considered the symbol of the fungible garment, as seen in the Mishna in Taanis, where the women would wear klei lavan so that they were all dressed the same.  This idea stems from Rashi in Breishis where he translates ksones pasim with the word Karpas, like chur karpas ut'cheiles, and then Rabbeinu Manoach on the Rambam 8 Chametz U'Matza 2 who makes the connection between the Karpas and the Ksones Pasim. From there it's a short step to saying that the kittel is like an anti-kesones-pasim.
  • That's it. I know of other explanations for the kittel, but I just can't bring myself to say over all the silly and irresponsible explanations I've seen and heard.
There comes a point when you find out so much that you don't know more, you end up knowing nothing. Why was the minhag of wearing a kittel started? Ah! I know! We wear the Kittel to make you happy; to keep you sober; because its beautiful; because its simple; to remind us of how we ate korbanos; to wear a garment that is so odd that the children will wonder why you're wearing it, to wear a garment that is immediately obvious as being Jewish....
Perhaps the lesson of the kittel is this:

There is a minhag for married men to wear a kittel.

The reason for the minhag is unclear, and ranges all over the map.

BUT THERE IS NO MINHAG TO KNOW WHAT THE KITTEL MEANS. Most people think nothing at all, or, according to Reb Moshe, they are oblivious of its original intention. It's almost as if the minhag is to not know what it means.

So; Wear the kittel, and YOU CAN DECIDE WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU!  (see, e.g., my discussion about breaking a plate at a tna'im here.)

You're a free agent. I've listed the Taz, the Magen Avraham, the Maharal, the Aruch Hashulchan, the Netziv, the Kli Yakar and Rav JB. And Reb Leibaleh Eiger and the Bnei Yissaschar. You have a nice and far ranging list of reasons for the kittel, or you can make one up, if you like.
Or, all the themes work together. Gilu bire'ada, enjoying the opportunities to do mitzvos and simply having pleasure from the gift of a beautiful Olam Hazeh that we enjoy and use for avodas Hashem, all the while remembering that we must temper our enjoyment with the unblinking awareness of our responsibilities and the limited time we have to acheive them. This is the same idea with korbanos: enjoy achilas kodshim, but remember that you are eating mishulchan gavo'ah, and that the experience should be viewed as a means of spiritual growth. It is through this human simcha shel mitzvah, a physical experience that ties our bodies to our cheilek elo'ah mima'al, that hashra'as hashechina comes.
In the spirit of even-handedness, here's a picture of the trim on a nice kittel, available for around $180+ at Greenfield Judaica. Better lean ALL the way over when you're drinking the arba kosos, because you don't want to get this one stained.  (Update: there are much more expensive kittels available now.)

I recently was thinking about this, and I realized that the entire discussion is based on a fundamental and pervasive error, and everything I wrote above about the contradictory interpretations of the Kittel is wrong.  I realized this just last week, when I brought up this issue at my Shabbos morning Kiddush, asking "What, exactly, is the reason we wear a Kittel at the Seder?"  One of the guests, Reb Yitzchak Resnick, responded "Because it is symbolic."  His words were, of course, the introduction of an discussion.  But I realized that his one sentence statement is more correct than anything I had heard on the topic.  His sentence was not the beginning of a discussion: it was the entire discussion.  A Kittel is symbolic; it is inherently laden, or charged, with significance.  It is white, it is simple, it is unusual.  That is the root of the idea of a kittel.  It elicits a feeling.  How that set of qualities is applied varies.  It has come to be used for bigdei meisim; it has come to be used to symbolize angels.  It has come to symbolize separation and distinction.  BUT ALL THESE THINGS ARE RAMIFICATIONS OF THE INHERENT SYMBOLIC NATURE OF THIS GARMENT.  They are not sources of  why we wear the kittel at the seder: they are merely other applications of the symbolic nature of the kittel, of the response the Kittel elicits. 

So, the answer is, we wear the kittel because it is symbolic.  It is unusual; it is white; it is simple; it is clean.  What specific association to the seder does the kittel have?  There is no definitive answer to that question.     The 'electric charge' of the kittel, the unusual quality of the kittel, the stimulus to our seder experience, is all that matters.  No specific association was intended, and a multitude of interpretations are all equally valid.  To a great extent, the seder experience is based on questions, and the stimulus to thought is more important than any particular answer; the kittel, too, is a question.  In our tradition, every question ought to produce at least seventy answers.  So, what meaning should we read into the kittel at the seder?  Gilu Bir'ada is probably the best way to put it, if only because Gilu Bir'ada, by its very nature, covers the whole spectrum.  But the main thing is, let your imagination fly.

I am grateful to the yungermahn at my son's kollel who directed our attention to this Matteh Ephrayim/Elef consiLamatteh in tof reish yud , The Matteh Ephraim strongly defends the minhag they used to have to use a kittel with silver around the neck.  I find it very, very hard to understand, but considering that Reb Ephraim Zalman Margoliyos was recognized as a gadol in the generation of Reb Akiva Eiger,the Ketzos and the Nesivos, Reb Mordechai Bennet and the Chasam Sofer, and that he joined the Chasam Sofer in the war against the haskala, it is obvious that if there's a problem of seichel hayashar here, it is mine.  This is especially true in light of his explanation of the minhag and in light of the fact that he was a fantastic gevir who made his fortune in the diamond business,


  1. No discussion of the Netziv that the kittel is like the simple beged worn for achilas korbanos?

    Aside from the case of aveil, the same issue should have a nafka minah for whether a chassan should wear a kittel during shana rishona, no?

  2. No, as a matter of fact. This is all I know about the Chaluk Lavan thing:

    Bayom Hashemini and the Haftorah. Before the eighth day, on the first seven days of the avodas hamilu’im, Moshe did the avodah. He had the status of a kohen gadol during that time, as Rashi in Shvu’os says. But he did not wear bigdei kehunah, as the gemora and rashi say in Avodah Zora 32a, and he wore a “chaluk lovon,” a white cloak. The Likutei Sichos Book I Year I page 228 on the haftorah of this week’s parshah brings from the Rambam in Klei Hamikdosh 13:12 that there is a garment called an “Eifod Bod” which had important symbolic meaning; the Rambam says that we find in Tanach that many people who were not kohanim wore an Eifod Bod, and that it was a sign that the wearer was in a state of preparation for hashro’as hashechina. This is found in Shmuel I 22 regarding the residents of Nov, and also that Shmuel Hanovi wore it, and that Dovid Hamelech wore it when the Aron was brought to Ir Dovid, as described in today’s haftorah. (I do not know whether the Chaluk Lovon is the same as the Eifod Bod, but maybe it is.) The Rebbe’s theme is that the simcha of Dovid had two stages: first, to be zocheh to hashro’as hashechina, so it says “lifnei Hashem,” and second just out of unbridled joy, wild abandon. When Dovid told Michal that this was the reason he was chosen over Shaul, he meant that Shaul was a determined rationalist, but Dovid was ‘avdi,’ he was subsumed in his avdus of Hashem, and that it was that avdus that expressed itself in his joy.

    So, do us a favor and tell us either the MM or the tochen, would you please?

  3. "Yehyeh Bigodecha Levanim"
    Just strangely enogh today I heard that Chabad does not wear one do you happen to know why?

  4. Reb Leibele Eiger in Toras Emes says that the kitel is symbolic of the white worn by a woman on the "7clean days". we wear it after getting out of the impurity of Egypt and now count 7 times 7 days.

  5. I saw in the New Reb Moshe Haggadah that Reb Moshe did not put out the Ten Pices I find that Very Intresting I heard In the Name of the Person who used to bring it to him that Reb Moshe used to use Erev Pesach Matzaos. I was very suprised. He had a story apparently with A famous son In law too but he seems to be very contreversial in general.

  6. And he himself did not sell Real Chometz

  7. Wow a Bnei Yissochar we are proud now how about you list the 15 reasons its called shabbos hagodol and then you will be a real Chossid(;

  8. Reb Moshe did Hesaiaba by Karpas?

  9. I have to say that I did not see that punchline coming, it's a very interesting he'ora to say the least. I just want to add my two cents and say that lace and frills look ridiculous bichlal :D
    When I get married I'm going to request a plain kittel.

  10. The lesson I learned from LakewoodGuy was that if your wife buys you a fru-fru kittel, grin and bear it. After all, the word 'Nisu'in' also means 'to bear.'

  11. If we assume that the kitel is just symbolic then it goes well with all the other symbolisms' at the seder, such as a zeroah,"symbolizing" korban pesach, the egg "symbolizing" korban chaggiga, etc. Maybe the whole point of kittel wearing is to stimulate children to ask questions like so many other things we do at the seder, but the answer to the kittel question is left to our own thoughts and ideas, or we can read your blog at the seder!!

  12. I agree with you 100%. After writing this, I realized that Chazal's 'explanation' of why we do certain things at the seder being "kdei she'yishalu hatinokos" means exactly what we've been saying. These things were intentionally left vague because they have potential for myriad interpretations that enhance the seder, and we are encouraged to invest them with whatever Torahdikeh and Pesachdike meaning they can encompass. Simple people will see simple things, and wise people will see wise things. I'm not sure I'm using the right words, but the idea is that they are the catalysts and we are the reactants.

    The classic example is the two tibbulim, as I discuss here.