Rabbi Elissa: Why We Wear White on Shabbat

Someone calls out “Hey you in the white!” and hundreds of people turn around to see if they’ve been called.

With this joke, generations of Camp Louise campers and staff have remarked on the uniqueness of our Shabbat experience, while subtly acknowledging that it’s truly odd to see 500 people all decked out in nothing but white. Across the mountain, Camp Airy folks put on white shirts and yarmulkes to show that Shabbat is significant and different from the other wear-what-you-want days of the week. As a mom of a Camp Airy kid, I fold each year’s new white t-shirt knowing that while he will definitely not be a clean-freak, at least once a week I know he will change his clothes! I’m not sure parents of our youngest campers love the grape juice-stained stained whites that come home in their luggage, but my advice is to stock up on bleach (or buy whites you won’t mind trashing after camp).

The tradition of wearing white clothes to greet Shabbat dates back to at least the 1500’s if not earlier. In the city of Safed, the place where Kabbalistic /mystical Judaism took root and flourished, the Kabbalists would take baths (not a daily experience back then, like it is at camp….), put on their finest white clothes and go out to the fields on the hilltops to watch the sun set and welcome in the day of Shabbat. By wearing white, they felt they were presenting not only their purest selves, but also their openness to receive spiritual nourishment from the day. A white shirt will soak up and be transformed by the purple of grape juice. The kabbalists taught that a receptive soul will soak up and be transformed by the beauty and meaning of Shabbat.

Though awkward at first, most campers and staff come to love the way wearing white sets Shabbat apart from the rest of life. When camp alumni from across the decades come together each Fall for Circle Reunion, many choose to wear whites even though we’re not required to do it.

At camp we wear white shirts or all-white to be connected to each other and past/future generations of Louise/Airy. We wear white to signify that Shabbat is a special time, set apart from the week. We wear white to remind ourselves to be open to the spirituality, joy and beauty of our services, song-sessions, folk-dancing and Havdalah.

Hey you in the white – Shabbat Shalom.

Post Excerpt

The tradition of wearing white clothes to greet Shabbat dates back to at least the 1500’s if not earlier. Though awkward at first, most campers and staff come to love the way wearing white sets Shabbat apart from the rest of life.