Kittel, Kirtle

By Philologos

Published February 02, 2007, issue of February 02, 2007.
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Herbert L. Foster of Edgartown, Mass., wants to know whether there is a linguistic connection between the kittel, the white robe worn by some observant Jews on the High Holy Days and other solemn occasions, and the English kirtle, defined by his dictionary as either “a woman’s loose gown, worn in the middle ages,” or “a man’s tunic.”

There is no connection. “Kirtle” is akin to the similarly defined kjortel in Danish and Swedish, and is also possibly related to Latin curtus, “short” (cf. English “curt”), because of its once tunic-like length. Only later did women’s kirtles, which finally went out of fashion in the 17th century, lengthen and turn into one-piece bodices-and-skirts worn over a blouse or chemise.

The Yiddish word kitl, on the other hand, comes from German Kittel, which, although also signifying a frock or tunic, is said by my German etymological dictionary, Gerhard Wahrig’s Deutsches Wörterbuch, to derive from Arabic qutn, “cotton.” The custom of wearing a kittel, a wide-sleeved, surplice-like garment donned by being pulled over the head, goes back among European Jews to the Middle Ages. Apart from its use on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the kittel commonly was and sometimes still is worn by grooms at weddings, as well as serving as a shroud at burials. In France and Western Germany, medieval Jews called it a sargenos, a word deriving from Latin sareca, a long shirt, and related to our English “serge,” the woolen or worsted fabric from which the sareca was at one time made. (Curiously, the only language in which sareca seems to have survived to this day is the now vanishing Highland Scots, in which a sark is a shirt, chemise or nightdress, and a sarkit is a short shirt or blouse.)

In eastern parts of Germany, a sargenos was known as a Kittel, and from there the word entered Eastern European Yiddish. Although many European languages, such as English, have words for cotton that derive from Arabic qutn (Spanish algodon even comes with the Arabic definite article attached), modern German does not. But Kattun, which means calico in modern German, did mean cotton in medieval German, and Wahrig’s etymology is based on that. Perhaps a Kittel was originally a sargenos made from cotton.

And how does one say cotton in modern German? The word is Baumwolle, literally, “tree wool,” and thereby hang both a tale and a tail. Cotton, which needs a hot climate and originally came from India, cannot be grown in Europe, where some strange ideas about it prevailed for a long time. These went at least as far back as fifth-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote that “there are trees growing wild [in India] which produce a kind of wool better than sheep’s wool in beauty and quality, which the Indians use for making their clothes.” But Herodotus’s report was a model of sobriety compared with such medieval Europeans like 14th-century English author and pseudo-traveler John Mandeville — who, taking the idea of “tree wool” quite literally, assured his readers that there was in India a wonderful tree that bore tiny lambs on the ends of its branches. These lambs, Mandeville wrote, hung from their tails and grazed on the ground, and cotton was harvested by shearing them.

And yet as fantastical as Mandeville’s description was, it may have had a basis in reality, for this spinner of tall tales had conceivably heard of the giant baobab tree, Adansonia digitata, which grew in Africa and was known to the Arabs of the North African coast. Also known as the “dead rat tree” because of its fruit — whose fuzzy, cottonlike fibers hang from long pedicels that resemble rats’ tails — the baobab could easily have been confused with Herodotus’s “wool trees” by Mandeville, its rats turned by him into tiny sheep.

The notion that cotton, if not sheep, grew on trees lies behind the German word Baumwolle. In pre-modern Hebrew, on the other hand, cotton was known as tsemer-gefen or “vine wool.” This is a term first found in a letter written by 10th-century Babylonian rabbi Sherira Ga’on, who should have known better but at least placed the plant — which is in fact a small annual shrub — closer to the ground. In contemporary Hebrew, tsemer-gefen is how you say absorbent cotton.

As for Arabic qutn, it comes from Aramaic kitan, a word denoting not cotton but flax or linen and occurring in the Talmud and the Targum, the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch regularly read by Jews to this day. Thus, for example, where the book of Deuteronomy forbids the wearing of shatnez, “wool and linen together,” the Targum translates the Hebrew tsemer u’fishtim yah.dav as amar ve-kitan meh.ubar ka-h.ada. In the final analysis, it would seem, “kittel” has ancient Jewish roots extending further into the past than medieval German.

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