October 2019 QUESTION:
Why do some people wear white during the High Holy Days?
October 2019 ANSWER:
The colour white, in Judaism, is associated both with atonement and grace.
Since Rosh HaShanah begins the ten-day period known as the Yamim Nora-im, the Days of Awe, which concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, it is clear that atonement for sin is a major part of the liturgy and focus of this period on our calendar. Our goal should be to repent our sins and ask for forgiveness, so that we can begin the new year without blemish…in other words, as pure as the white garments we are wearing.
Grace, in theology, refers to unearned or unmerited blessing. The notion is that God can extend blessings to us even though we haven’t (or possibly could never have) earned them. To express our awareness that we have not merited these blessings, though we hope for them anyway, we dress in a colour that suggests innocence (any spot or blemish will show up dramatically on white clothes).
When we sing Avinu Malkeynu, we literally say: “Our Father, our King, be gracious to us (khoneinu) and forgive us, even though we have no merit”.
Some attribute the custom of wearing white on Yom Kippur to the idea that we spend the day repenting, aware that we may not achieve the goal; if that were the case, we would, in wearing white, be prepared to meet our Maker.
I prefer to think of white as referring to atonement and grace.
To emphasize the themes of grace and atonement in the High Holy Days prayers, we change the curtain on the ark from brightly coloured to white; we change the cover on the reader’s table (where the Torah is read) from blue to white; we change the Torah mantles from bright colours to white; and we add flowers on the bimah that are white.
There will be a basket of white kippot at the doorway, where the prayerbooks are handed out, and we encourage you to use these during the High Holy Days. If you prefer to use your own kippah, please consider getting a plain white one for these occasions.