Feb 162015

I have a hunch that very few readers will find this post engaging, but since for several years I’ve been making a living by selling tallit and tzitzit products and sending them to customers around the world, I was quite intrigued to come across a court decision that delved into the definition and description of the type of products we sell.

Apparently a Jew in New York by the name of Dwek wanted to import talleisim and tallis katan garments without having to pay too much in import duties. It sounds like he got in a spat with U.S. Customs, and the case was brought to court, where they had to determine whether a tallit and tallit katan should be viewed like other cotton or wool garments, or whether the importer could “claim duty free status as a religious article under subheading 9810.00.90, HTSUSA.”

“Determination of the HTSUSA classification of the subject merchandise requires an understanding of terminology which is germane to the issue,” reads the decision, noting that “Customs interprets the use of the merchandise to include the manner in which it is worn, as well as the reason for which it is worn.” The following definitions are then listed:

Prayer Shawl – A tallith. Webster’s II, New College Dictionary 868 (1995).
Tallith – A fringed prayer shawl with bands of black or blue, worn during worship by Orthodox or Conservative Jews. Id. at 1125.
Tallit – Prayer Shawl, usually of silk or wool, sometimes banded with silver or gold thread, and fringe at each of the four corners in accordance with biblical law. (Num. 15:38) [I would add that sometimes the mitzvah is fulfilled according to Rabbinical Law (d’Rabbanan), but not at the level of Biblical Law (d’Oreisa).] The wearing of the tallit at worship is obligatory only for married men, but it is customarily worn also by males of bar mitzvah age or older. [That is true for most Ashkenazim.] Occasionally it is spread over the marriage canopy or used as a burial shroud. In recent years, some women have begun to wear tallits. Mordecai Schreiber, The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia, 255 (1998).
Arba Kanfot – Literally, four corners. A rectangular vestlet covering the chest and back, with ritual fringes, or tzizit, attached to its corners, in remembrance of the biblical command that Jewish males wear a fringed garment (Num. 15:37-41). It is also called a tallit katan, or “little tallit.” Id. at 28.
Tzitzit – Tassels hanging on each of the four corners [of a Tallit or Tallit Katan]. If you look carefully you will see that they are made of eight strings, or more accurately, four strings doubled over to make eight. You will also notice that they are attached through a small hole near the corner and that they contain five knots and four groups of windings between the knots. Aryeh Kaplan, Tzitzith: A Thread of Light, 9 (1984).

“Furthermore, after consultation with various sources concerning the practice of the Jewish faith, Customs notes the following explanation of the usage for the subject merchandise:

When dressing one should add to his garments the Talit Qatan (little talit), better known as ‘Arba Kanfot’ (four corners), which should be worn all day. The Talit Qatan consists of an oblong piece of cloth with a hole cut in the middle large enough for the head to go through. It should be large enough to fold over the upper body in front and back, and should have Tsitsit on its four corners… The Tsisit, as the Torah prescribes, serve as a reminder of God’s commandments: “And ye shall look at it and remember all the commandments of the Lord.” (Num. 15:39)… If one of the threads is missing the Talit should not be used. . . . Today, the Tsitsit come ready made, attached properly to the Talit and Talit Qatan. See Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, 3-5 (1979).”

As you can see, the terms “tassels” and “fringes” can get very confusing. I think the safest usage is to refer to tzitzit as “tzitzit” or “tassels” and to reserve the usage of the word “fringes” for the decorative fringes along two sides of a tallit gadol or usually along the front edge of a wool tallit katan.

If you are not bored to tears by now, and are still reading, here is where the legal discussion of Customs regulations gets interesting: In its ruling the court decided that import taxes should be levied on a tallit or tallit katan – unless it has tzitzit tied on!

As stated in the above cited sources, both the talit and arba kanfot are symbolically used for prayer and have specially knotted tassels and fringe attached for their use and purpose as such. Therefore, if the subject merchandise is imported with the tassels attached, then the importer of record may claim duty free status as a religious article under subheading 9810.00.90, HTSUSA.

So there you have it in black-and-white: If it has tzitzit tied on, it’s a “religious article,” if not, it’s just an article of clothing.

You could even go one step further. The concluding section states, “if imported with the specially knotted tassels and fringe properly attached” [italics added] the tallit or tallit katan is duty free. In that case, if the tallit does not have kosher tzitzit, for any reason, the importer would have to pay taxes!