NYP no. 5765.5



May a Non-Jew Wear a Talit?



A certain congregation family has asked whether or not the non-Jewish grandfather of a Bar Mitzvah may wear a talit during the Sabbath morning service when the Bar Mitzvah will lead the congregation in worship. If he wears the talit, he may wear it on the bimah. In our congregation, the non-Jewish parent or grandparents stand on the bimah but do not pass the Torah when the Torah is passed from one generation to another.

This question is the subject of two existing Reform responsa. Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof[1] allows a non-Jewish clergy to wear a talit in an ecumenical service in a synagogue. He reasons that since the talit, especially the tzitzit, are of lesser sanctity than the Torah and its accouterments, and since they may be discarded when worn out, unlike the Torah and its accouterments which must be stored away, that we may deal with them differently. He continues that we may offer the talit to the non-Jew “for the sake of peace.” However, Rabbi Walter Jacob[2] mentions that wearing the talit is a mitzvah from the Torah and requires a berakhah which specifically mentions the chosenness of Israel and so may be recited only by a Jew.

So, may a non-Jew wear a talit during the Sabbath morning service? (Rabbi Harry D. Rothstein, Utica, NY)



This she’elah asks us to decide between two conflicting teshuvot, each authored by an eminent posek and teacher of the Reform movement. We therefore state at the outset our profound debt of gratitude to our teachers, even though we may disagree with them on one issue or another. Although our interpretations of text and our religious stance may diverge from those of our predecessors, we are able to conduct this discussion solely because they taught us the art and the process of Reform responsa and halakhic thought. We stand on the shoulders of giants and that very fact, ironically, accounts for the different angle of vision that we bring to this and to other questions.[3]

With that in mind, let us consider the responsum of Rabbi Freehof. He bases his permissive ruling upon the distinction between tashmishei kedushah, “appurtenances of sanctity,” and tashmishei mitzvah, “appurtenances of a mitzvah.” Ritual articles belonging to the former category, including “the Torah and its accouterments,” are of a higher degree of sanctity than those belonging to the latter category, such as the tzitzit. Thus, if a Torah mantle has become worn and is no longer suitable for use, it must be stored away (placed in a “genizah”), while the fringes of a talit that are broken or no longer used may, in the words of the Shulchan Arukh, “be thrown onto the ash heap because it is an appurtenance of a mitzvah and not inherently holy.”[4] Indeed, Rabbi Freehof continues, the halakhah even permits one “to go to the toilet wearing the talit.”[5] This leads him to the following kal vachomer argument: “If, therefore, the talit may be worn in all sorts of places, and if its fringes (when separated) may even be tossed upon the ash heap, there is no question that one may lend it to a Gentile minister who will handle it reverently.”[6] He adds that in allowing the minister to wear the talit “we will thus fulfill the basic mitzvah of acting ‘to follow the paths of peace’ (mipney darkhey shalom),” which, he notes, our tradition also states as “to avoid ill will” (mishum eivah).

In our view, Rabbi Freehof’s teshuvah is somewhat less than persuasive. This is true, in part because of some of the debatable points of halakhah that it contains,[7] but primarily because we do not think it is a helpful way to frame the question. The talit’s inherent ritual sanctity (or lack thereof) is not the point. Even a Torah scroll, which possesses much more sanctity that a talit, is hardly “defiled” if a non-Jew should touch it, yet this does not mean that we may or should call a non-Jew to the Torah for an aliyah. The relevant issue in all these matters is whether it is appropriate for a non-Jew to participate in a particular public ritual observance. In the case of being called to the Torah, our answer is “no,”[8] and we would say the same here. To wear a talit is to perform the mitzvah “to remember to observe all My mitzvot and be holy to your God” (Numbers15:40); it is, in other words, a material expression of one’s membership in the community of Israel, a people sanctified through the mitzvot that characterize its covenant with God. The Rabbinic tradition understands the tzitzit as a physical sign that marks Israel as a separate people, “made distinct by the mitzvot.”[9] A Gentile may wish to wear a talit for his or her own reasons, but the talit is our symbol; it does not belong to the non-Jew, and it is not for him or her to define. The talit, as our symbol, functions for us as a declaration that the one who wears it is a Jew, who bears the title yisrael, who partakes with the rest of us in the covenant that distinguishes us as a unique religious community. The grandfather in our she’elah may well feel a deep sense of familial pride in his grandson’s becoming a Bar Mitzvah, and his desire to participate in this special event is understandable. He is not, however, a Jew, a member of our covenant community. He should not wear a talit.

We also hesitate to apply here the categories “to follow the paths of peace” and “to avoid ill will.”[10] While we certainly want to maintain good relations with our non-Jewish neighbors and to avoid causing family strife, we doubt that these principles are the appropriate way to frame the issues at stake in this question. We are dealing, after all, with matters of deep religious principle, with observances that define us as a Jewish community and that therefore set us apart from others. By calling ourselves a Jewish community, we necessarily draw lines and establish boundaries that flow from and reinforce our identity as Jews. To do so inevitably limits the role that non-Jews, those who do not partake in that identity, may play in our communal ritual life.[11] After all, we do not argue that a Gentile ought to be called to the Torah, recite kiddush, or lead the synagogue service on the grounds that this would help preserve friendly relations with non-Jews. Indeed, our sho’el’s congregation places clear limits upon the role that the non-Jewish grandparents play at the service marking Bar Mitzvah. The non-Jew should understand the need of the Jewish community to assert the right — a right that belongs by every self-identified community, religious or otherwise[12] — to define itself, its patterns of life, and its qualifications for membership. This is especially true in democratic and pluralistic societies such as our own, where this right is acknowledged and where Jews are proud and equal citizens. It is good to preserve peace and to avoid hostility, but these goals, worthy as they are, do not convince us of the need to compromise our basic religious principles.

For these reasons, we endorse the position taken by Rabbi Walter Jacob in his responsum. We do so not exclusively because the wearing of a talit is preceded by the recitation of a berakhah that stresses the nature of this act as a mitzvah. We frequently invite our Gentile neighbors to participate in activities – for example, attending a Passover seder,[13] sitting in the sukkah –  over which we recite birkhot mitzvah. Since it is obvious to all that they join with us as guests and not as Jews, we would not think to regard their participation as improper. Yet for a Gentile to don a talit at a public worship service, something he or she need not do in order to take part in that event, is to identify physically as one of us. Again, our position is based primarily upon the symbolic function of the talit as a statement of Jewish identity and of membership in the covenant community. The Gentile cannot make this statement; therefore, he or she should not wear a talit at our synagogue services.



  1. R. Solomon B. Freehof, Reform Responsa for Our Time, no. 5.
  2. R. Walter Jacob, Halakhah, a publication of the Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah, Spring/Summer ed., 1996.
  3. The classic statement – “we are dwarfs, standing on the shoulders of giants” – seems to have originated with the 12th century Scholastic philosopher Bernard of Chartres. R. Yeshayahu di Trani (d. Ca. 1250) is apparently the first Jewish author to use the phrase, which he calls “a saying (mashal) of the philosophers”; Resp. RYD, no. 62. R. Yeshayahu learns from this saying that although the dwarf certainly lacks the great stature of the giant, he nevertheless can see farther, precisely because the giant enables him to do so. This explains how we acharonim, or “later” sages, are permitted to disagree with our predecessors (the rishonim), even though the rishonim, according to traditionalist ideology, are by definition greater and wiser than we. On this subject, see Yisrael Ta-Shema, Halakhah, minhag, umetzi’ut be’ashkenaz (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1996), 70-71, and Robert K. Merton, On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
  4. Orach Chayim 21:1. Actually, the passage reads “because no sanctity attaches to its physical substance” (she’ein begufah kedushah); i.e., the tzitzit is holy only because it is whole and attached to a four-cornered garment. A tzitzit that is detached from the talit is mere thread; no mitzvah is performed with it, and it thus may be discarded. We wonder whether a proper analogy can be drawn from a detached tzitzit to a fringed talit with which a mitzvah is indeed performed.
  5. Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 21:3. The commentators on that passage, however, notably the Magen David and the Mishnah Berurah, write that this refers to the talit katan, the fringed undergarment that one may wear all day long, and not to the talit shel mitzvah that is worn specially during prayer. The latter, they declare, should not be worn in the toilet.
  6. The precise she’elah addressed by Rabbi Freehof concerns a Christian minister who is to participate in a joint service at the synagogue and who wishes “to wear a talit as the rabbi does.”
  7. See notes 4 and 5, above.
  8. On the general question of Gentile participation in synagogue services, see Teshuvot for the Nineties, no. 5754.4, 55-75 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=5&year=5754).
  9. Pesikta deRav Kahana 16:3 on Lamentations 2:13; Sifre Deuteronomy, ch. 36 (to Deut. 6:9).
  10. Mipney darkhey shalom is the justification cited for a number of takanot (rabbinic legislative ordinances) during Tanaitic times. See M. Gitin 5:8-9 and Shevi`it 4:3, among other places. Mishum eivah appears during the later, Amoraic period; see, for example, B. Bava Metzi`a 32b and Avodah Zarah 26a.
  11. This Committee has spoken to the issue on a number of occasions. Non-Jews are not called to the Torah, do not read the haftarah, do not receive important “honors” surrounding the Torah service, and do not lead the central rubrics of our liturgy; Teshuvot for the Nineties, no. 5754.4, 55-75 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=5&year=5754); Responsa Committee, no. 5758.11 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=11&year=5758); American Reform Responsa, no. 6, 21-24 (http://data.ccarnet.org/cgi-bin/respdisp.pl?file=6&year=arr); Current Reform Responsa, no. 23, 91-93; and New Reform Responsa, no. 7, 33-36.
  12. For example, as one member of our Committee puts it: “How would we feel about a Jew attending a Catholic mass for a relative’s confirmation, and taking communion?” The members of that Catholic church would surely question whether the Jew had acted appropriately with regard to their sacrament.
  13. Many traditionally observant Jews will not invite non-Jews to a seder or to any other yom tov meal. This is because the permission to cook on a festival day (so long as it does not fall on Shabbat) is interpreted to apply only to food that is cooked for Jews; therefore, “it is forbidden to invite the non-Jew, lest one cook extra food on the festival day specifically for him” (Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 512:1; see B. Beitzah 21b on Exodus 12:16). We Reform Jews clearly do not observe this restriction. Moreover, so long as it is clear that one will complete the cooking prior to the onset of the holiday, there is no reason why Orthodox Jews should refrain from inviting non-Jews to the meal.


If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.