Image: Air Force Captain Rabbi Gary Davidson is wearing a kittel and puts on a tallit to lead Yom Kippur services for Air Force personnel stationed in South East Asia. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Central Command)
(If it’s not Yom Kippur, see my other article What to Wear to Synagogue?)
I noticed that the third most popular article on this blog on Rosh Hashanah was What to Wear to Synagogue. I suspect there may also be folks who wonder what to wear on Yom Kippur – or who get to synagogue and worry that they have worn the wrong thing.
Yom Kippur is a complicated day for clothing choices for Jews, because there is a wide variation of practice. For a visitor to an unfamiliar synagogue, you are unlikely to go far wrong with clean, tidy business attire.
However, what you will see upon arrival at the synagogue may cover quite a range. Here are some choices you may encounter at a Yom Kippur service:
- Many people will wear “nice” business attire.
- Some may choose to wear canvas or plastic shoes, since traditionally there is a prohibition of wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur.
- Some may choose to wear a white garment that looks a bit like a modest lightweight bathrobe or a lab coat. It’s called a kittel, and it has multiple connotations. Bridegrooms may wear a kittel for weddings. A kittel is part of the tachrichim, the traditional burial shroud. It conveys a sense of both purity and mourning.
- Some may choose to observe the prohibition against “anointing” on Yom Kippur. Interpretations of this practice vary: women may refrain from wearing cosmetics, men may forgo scented products. Some individuals interpret it as including deodorant.
- Washing for pleasure is forbidden during Yom Kippur, but washing for hygiene is permitted. Individuals decide on precisely where to draw those lines themselves. You may see someone who appears to be having a “bad hair day” because they still have “bed head.”
Why would civilized people show up for a major religious observance with such grooming? This has to do with the five “afflictions” of Yom Kippur. Traditionally, on Yom Kippur Jews abstain from:
- Food and drink
- washing for pleasure
- wearing leather shoes
In my own experience as an American Reform Jew, I’ve seen a few people groom themselves differently for Yom Kippur, and some people wear canvas shoes. A much smaller number wear a kittel. Most people wear tidy, clean clothing but nothing unusual.
The last thing that’s different about clothing for Yom Kippur is that you will see a number of people in synagogue wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, at the evening Kol Nidre service. At no other time does the Jew in the pew wear a tallit at night.
In most Orthodox synagogues, the tallit and kittel are seen as males-only attire. I say “most” because even in Orthodoxy, customs vary from shul to shul. Women dress as they do for any other service at that synagogue. How dressy they will be depends on the culture of that particular community. In general, women at an Orthodox shul wear skirts, not slacks.
For a visitor in any synagogue, the same rule applies as for other services: you are likely to fit right in wearing business attire. The important thing is that one be clean, tidy and modest. You want to dress in a way that will allow you and those around you to pay attention to prayer and the service, because after all, that’s the point!