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Symbols and Rituals: Wearing White and Not Wearing Leather

Return to the InterfaithFamily Guide to the High Holy Days.

Wearing White and Not Wearing Leather

Non-leather clothingDuring the High Holy Days, there’s a tradition for people to dress in white clothes. It’s not required and not everyone does it, but many people do. The idea is that we’re working on purifying ourselves ethically and morally during the High Holy Days, and by wearing white we symbolize that aspiration. Some people like to wear a simple white linen robe over their clothes during the High Holy Days. This robe is called a kittel. In liberal synagogues, you’re most likely to see only the rabbi or cantor wearing a kittel, and possibly a small number of congregants.

There are some other traditions regarding clothing that are observed to varying degrees in different synagogues. One tradition is to refrain from wearing anything made out of leather on Yom Kippur. Why? Because at the time this tradition was established, only the well-off could afford clothes and shoes of leather, and so wearing leather was seen as an act of showing off. Since the purpose of the High Holy Days is to encourage humility, self-examination and self-improvement, Jews of an earlier era decided that leather (and other symbols of wealth and privilege) shouldn’t be worn on this particular day. If you happen to wear leather to synagogue, don’t worry about it. Not everyone observes these practices, and it’s OK if you don’t. But if you happen to notice people wearing dressy clothes with canvas sneakers that don’t match, now you’ll know why.


The InterfaithFamily Guide to the High Holy Days is also available in PDF. 



Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

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