By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
It goes without saying that one is never permitted to use a tallit for a degrading or undignified purpose. This is true even after the tallit is worn out and no longer usable. There is some discussion, however, whether a tallit may be used for routine or mundane tasks that are not necessarily degrading, such as cleaning one’s glasses, wiping away sweat, and drying one’s hands. The Mishna Berura cites authorities who permit using a tallit for such things as well as those who forbid it. Although there is a strong case to be made against using a tallit gadol for mundane tasks, the Mishna Berura concludes, however, that it is permissible to use a tallit katan for such a purpose.
The question remains, however, whether cleaning ones glasses (or any other similar purpose one might use a tallit for) is a routine conventional task or a degrading one. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach noted that people have a tendency to clean their glasses with both their tallit gadol and tallit katan. He expresses his displeasure with this practice and argues that cleaning one’s glasses with a tallit (gadol or katan) is degrading and disrespectful for the tallit and must not be done. He adds that this is forbidden “m’dina“, as a matter of halacha. Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky held similarly and would not wipe his glasses with his tallit. This is the opinion of many others, as well.
On the other hand, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is of the opinion that cleaning one’s glasses falls under the category of routine conventional activities and not something that is degrading. He says that people clean their glasses with even their finest garments and therefore doing so with one’s tallit cannot be considered an unbecoming thing to do. Many other authorities rule likewise. There are also those who rule that such uses of a tallit gadol or katan are permitted only in an emergency or in order not to lose time from one’s Torah study or prayer.
As there is considerable disagreement on the matter one should conduct oneself stringently, especially with regards to using a tallit gadol to clean one’s glasses, or for similar purposes. This is consistent with the general rule that a garment reserved exclusively for prayer must be treated with extra reverence. For example, a tallit gadol, kittel, or gartel, may not be worn in a bathroom while a tallit katan can. Those who choose to use their tallit katan for such things, however, are completely entitled to do so. It seems to be unanimous that once the tzitzit strings have been removed from a tallit gadol or tallit katan it is permissible to use the garment for any non-degrading purpose.