Designation: Hazmana Lav Milta

According to halacha, an item does not acquire any form of sanctity or prominence simply by virtue of it being designated for a particular use. For example, if one were to designate an item to be used for a mitzva, such as a myrtle or willow branch to be used as part of the Lulav bundle, it would not acquire any sanctity until it is actually used for that purpose. One may also retract and redesignate an item for any purpose, as long as it was not yet used. This concept is referred to as "hazmana lav milta" in halachic literature, which means that one’s designation of something for a ritual purpose is halachically meaningless and inconsequential.[1] In fact, the Talmud teaches that an animal that was designated for idolatry may later be used as a sacrifice in the Beit Hamikdash if it was not actually used for an idolatrous purpose.[2]

Even items that were manufactured with the explicit intention of being used for a mitzva only become sanctified once they are first used. A classic example of this in the codes is that once an item is used in the service of a dead body, such as shrouds or a coffin, it may not be used for any other purpose whatsoever. However, as mentioned, even if such items were manufactured with the intention of being used for the dead, one may redesignate them for other uses if they have not yet been used. As such, one would be permitted to disassemble a coffin and use its wood for a carpentry project, and the like. This is true even if such items were manufactured to be used for a specific person![3]

Another example of hazmana lav milta can be found regarding tefillin. Tefillin batim, or any other component of tefillin for that matter, that have not yet been used may be redesignated for a different purpose. For example, one may use batim that were designated to be used for Rashi tefillin and use them for Rabbeinu Tam tefillin. One may also change something from a shel-yad designation to a shel-rosh one, should one desire to do so. Swapping the tefillin components in this manner is never permitted once they have been used. This is true even if they were only used once.[4] So too, a tefillin bag may be used for a mundane purpose, such as for storing coins, as long as it has never yet been used for storing tefillin. Once the bag is used to store tefillin, however, it may no longer be used for anything else.

According to some authorities, however, it is permitted to use one’s tefillin bag for mundane purposes if one normally encloses one’s tefillin in the customary hard casings before they are put into the tefillin bag, as is quite common today.[5] When this is done, the tefillin bag assumes a lower level of holiness than it would if the tefillin were stored in the tefillin bag “exposed” without any type of preliminary covering. According to this approach, one may store coins in such a tefillin bag, even alongside the tefillin themselves. Other authorities disagree, and rule that even in such circumstances, the tefillin bag may not be used for mundane purposes. It is argued that even though the tefillin batim are enclosed in these hard cases, the knots of the tefillin remain exposed. The knots of the tefillin are considered to be holy items in their own right, similar to the tefillin batim themselves. According to this approach, the tefillin bag does indeed assume the highest possible level of holiness due to the exposed tefillin knots, and therefore, storing coins in the tefillin bag is forbidden accordingly,[6]

Although unbecoming, it might be technically permitted to use new sefarim for mundane purposes if they have not yet been used for study or prayer. For example, such sefarim may be used as a doorstop. So too, according to some sources, it might even be permissible to pile several sefarim on top of one another to serve as a makeshift stepstool.[7] Similarly, a tallit that has not yet been used in the course of a mitzva may theoretically be used as a blanket, rag, or towel, if need be.[8] On the other hand, when dismantling one’s sukka, one must be careful not to step on the schach, boards, walls, decorations, or any other sukka accessories, as they assume a level of holiness since they were used in the course of a mitzva.[9] 

Hazmana lav milta is also relevant to the laws of muktza, items that are forbidden to be handled on Shabbat. In certain circumstances, an item that would normally be considered muktza, will not be considered muktza if it is new and had not yet been used (though one should still not needlessly handle such items on Shabbat).[10] Additionally, candles that were manufactured and sold with the intention of being used in a Church or some other non-Jewish ceremony may be used for a mitzva, such as for Shabbat or Chanuka candles.[11] Similarly, it is permitted to decorate one's Sukka with items that were originally designated as Christmas decorations, as is common in Israel.[12]

Bathrooms are one of the few exceptions to the rule of hazmana lav milta. Once one has designated a specific area or room as a bathroom, it immediately becomes forbidden to pray there.[13] Commenting on this exception to the rule of hazmana lav milta, Rav Aharon Zeigler cites the explanation of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik:

According to Rav Soloveitchik, we must come to the conclusion that the Halakha of hazmana lav milta only applies to instances where we create some kind of Issur (Prohibition). In the case of Tashmishei Kedusha (e.g. tefillin bag), we are creating an issur against using it for a secular purpose. Likewise, in the case of a garment for a Met (dead body), we are creating a prohibition against using it for any other benefit... However, in the case of the latrine, we are not creating any Issur, we are merely designating a name for this area. Calling it "Bet HaKisei" is sufficient to disqualify it as a place of prayer. It is simply a Bizayon (ignominy) to pray in an area with such a name. For such name designation "Hazmana Milta He," [a mere] designation is strong enough.[14]

On a related note, according to many authorities, once one has designated funds for charitable causes it will often be forbidden to retract that commitment in order to use the money for some other purpose. In such a situation, one’s original intentions may be binding.[15] This is especially true if one made a verbal commitment to donate money to a certain charity.[16] The specifics of this halacha, however, are beyond the scope of this chapter.

[1] Sanhedrin 47b.

[2] Temura 29a; Rambam, Hilchot Isurei Mizbei’ach 4:4.

[3] YD 349:1.

[4] Menachot 34b.

[5] Biur Halacha 34 s.v. shtei hazugot.

[6] Minchat Elazar 1:27; Divrei Yatziv 1:48. Regarding the permissibility of using a tefillin bag to store a siddur, gartel, or other religious items, see Piskei Teshuvot 42:4.

[7] Yashiv Yitzchak 2:8. There is an apocryphical story that the Chafetz Chaim used a pile of his newly printed Mishna Berura sefarim that were not yet used or even opened, and stepped on them to reach some sefarim that were high on his bookshelf.

[8] Tzitzit Halacha Lemaaseh 15:1.

[9] Ben Ish Chai, V’zot Habracha.

[10] Shoneh Halachot 279:6.

[11] Chatam Sofer, OC 42; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Yalkut Yosef 2:139:1. See also OC 154:11; Mishna Berura 44.

[12] Shevet Halevi 2:57; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Yalkut Yosef 2:638:8.

[13] OC 83:2.

[14] Halachic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik Vol 4 p.176-178.

[15] Be'er Heitev 153:6,8.

[16] See Beit Yosef, YD 258; Darkei Moshe, YD 258:3; YD 258:6.