The Kittel Collection is a series of clothing pieces that explores the different ways clothing is used as a vehicle for meaning and identity within our tradition and literature. The kittel is a simple, white, garment used as a burial shroud, and customarily worn by men on various Jewish holy days. Each month, The Sisterhood showcases, and looks at the meaning behind, a kittel from my collection. View images of this month’s kittel, the Torah Kittel, after the jump.
Throughout this series I have explored how clothing is used within traditional Torah texts. But what of the textual description of the Torah itself as clothing?
The Zohar describes the Torah that was received at Sinai as the garments of Torah, and the task of engaging with Torah as an effort to perceive the body and soul that is wearing it.
“Now the narratives of the Torah are its garments,” according to the Zohar. “He who thinks that these garments are the Torah itself deserves to perish and have no share in the world to come. Woe unto the fools who look no further when they see an elegant robe! More valuable than the garment is the body which carries it, and more valuable even than that is the soul which animates the body.”
Engaging with the Torah text is realizing that there is something that lies beyond the words.
One midrash uses the image of adornment to describe a relationship with Torah. It describes the 24 books of the Tanach as 24 precious ornaments to beautify the bride. And another midrash describes the act of linking verses from all over Tanach to be similar to stringing together a necklace, the student of Torah finding new combinations.
When I was planning this Torah Kittel I initially imagined an elegant wedding dress or a ball gown.
But after considering the Zohar’s warning not to be distracted by the garment, I went for something much simpler. The design is based on a basic block, the type of thing a dressmaker would make from white muslin for an individual’s body in order to get the perfect fit for the final garment.
The neckline of the kittel has a three-stranded pearl-like necklace — one strand for each section of the Tanach, or the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Prophets (Nevi’im), and Writings (Ketuvim). Each of the 24 pearls is a book of the Tanach and is represented by the first letter cut into the pearl.
In the past I have used paper-cutting and liked the lace-like effect. I wanted to cut verses of Torah out of the fabric, to echo the Zohar’s instruction to see beyond the garment.
The bodice has the first verses from each book of the Torah cut into it. The skirt has the first lines of each book of the Prophets section, and the Writings are on the sleeves. Cutting regular fabric like cotton, without shredding or leaving raw edges, is only possible with laser-cutting. For this kittel I used tyvek. It is a type of plastic that drapes and sews like fabric, but can be cut with a knife and, unlike paper, it is extremely difficult to tear.
The words of Torah are only present in the fabric by not being there. The clothing allows the words of the Torah to be revealed but not completely contained.
Jacqueline Nicholls is a fine artist from London who uses art to explore traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways. She is a former artist-in-residence with the Forward’s Sisterhood.
The Torah Kittel