By Tobi Rubinstein
GQ magazine has hailed Mr. Sean Combs, aka Diddy’s, annual summer White Party as a social seasonal knockout. “Since its inception in the '90s, the event has always been a showstopper.” From Mary J. Blige to Maria Carey, all of the star-studded guests are instructed to wear white at his annual Hamptons event. According to fashion experts throughout the ages, your white wardrobe has been given permission to be worn starting Memorial Day till Labor Day.
I do lovingly remember the days of Shavuot at The Concord Hotel in the Catskills of my youth. There was a parade of white outfits going down the makeshift runway that approached the main dining hall entry. While visiting Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on a holiday in 1991, I witnessed an entirely white New Year’s Eve celebration. The Macumba ceremony is a form of white magic voodoo religious practice where thousands of people swarm the beaches wearing only white with white flowers and candles. Although I don’t understand any of this, other than it’s an absolutely forbidden practice in the Torah…the vast sea of white left a big impression on me.
Back in Emily Post’s era of the 1900s-1920s, when dress code rules where the only proper way to live, the “summer season” was bracketed by Memorial Day and Labor Day. The High Society ladies flocked en masse from townhouse to their seaside “cottage” or mountain “cabin” to escape the heat. City clothes were left behind in exchange for lighter, whiter, summer outfits. Fashion code of law had and has christened White as the official start of warm-weather fun in the sun. A carefree canvas that has yet to be painted with a summer full of life.
Coincidently, or perhaps not, Shavuot falls very closely to Memorial Day weekend - sometimes at the exact same time. The parading of crisp white attire is not only found in this secular start of the season, white clothes actually have a celebratory role in the special holiday of Matan Torah, Shavuot.
In Israel, the pioneers of the early 20th century who reclaimed the land refocused the meaning of Shavuot with the agricultural aspects of the holiday. In modern bikkurim festivals, children dressed in white carried baskets filled with produce from their local villages and kibbutzim (communal farms) in their grand parade, reading poems, singing, dancing, and displaying artwork, which was then sold to benefit the early days of The Jewish National Fund. This organization is known in Hebrew as Keren Kayemet le-Yisrael, a fund created to purchase land from Arab landowners with the ultimate plan of settling Jewish pioneers on it. Its main goal was eventually and successfully establishing the State of Israel. Till today, there are festivals similar to these taking place all around the country.
In many Sephardic congregations, prior to the Torah reading on the first day of Shavuot, a ketubah le-Shavuot (marriage certificate for Shavuot) is read as a symbolic betrothal of G-d and His people. The premarital document specifying the conditions agreed upon between the two parties, or the ketubah, which is a certificate the bridegroom presents to the bride at the wedding ceremony. Wearing white is a symbol of the bridal and groom attire symbolic to the marriage G-d makes with the children of Israel during this holiday. My dear friend Rabbanit Dr Adena Berkowitz explains the white attire for Shavuot as “like the bridal dress at a wedding- the spiritual marriage of the Jewish people with Hashem. The Torah is the ketubah.”
According to Aish TLV Rabbi Shlomo Chen for YNET news, “Wearing white is basically like being an angel. Basically, we're dressing like angels. We're returning to Eden, where the same concept of only eating milk products or vegetables and fruits is that we're all pure.”
Hashem gifted us the wisdom of the world through the Torah allowing us to reach spiritual levels of the highest order where, perhaps, we are in no need of any particular color. Just as I had written in the beginning of this article, we have a clean canvas on which a story is yet to be painted. The acceptance of the Torah had given us a fresh start without any prejudice of past color palettes.
Wearing white could have started either at the beginning of Eretz Yisrael pioneering days or as the interpretation of wedding outfits as bride and groom receiving the Torah. Wearing white could be a symbol of a clean slate of consciousness after 49 days of personal growth from the depths of impurity till the pinnacle of divine purity. Whatever the case may be, white is the height of perfection, which is the meaning of Shavuot. To be able to envelope the Torah at the height of perfection equals perfection in Hashem's timing to present us with the Torah as his perfectly chosen people, perhaps dressed in white at G-d’s white party.