Teacher Contribution: Tattoos in Judaism

After writing an article for Webyeshiva on Orthodox Judaism and piercing, I received an unexpected number of questions about Judaism and tattoos. It became apparent that first, many people feel the two subjects are associated, and second, there are also quite a few people who are simply uncertain about the general laws concerning tattooing in Orthodox Judaism. For these reasons, I felt an appropriate second contribution to the Webyeshiva would be an exploration of tattooing in Orthodox Judaism.

After writing an article for WebYeshiva on Orthodox Judaism and piercing, I received an unexpected number of questions about Judaism and tattoos. It became apparent that first, many people feel the two subjects are associated, and second, there are also quite a few people who are simply uncertain about the general laws concerning tattooing in Orthodox Judaism. For these reasons, I felt an appropriate second contribution to the Webyeshiva would be an exploration of tattooing in Orthodox Judaism.

While there is some real opportunity for discussion when it comes to the validity of individual piercing in Judaism, there is little scope for argument when it comes to tattooing – at least concerning the process of getting a tattoo itself. Having said that, tattooing is extremely popular throughout all spheres of the Western world, and it is still very much in vogue many years after it appeared as a normative alternative trend in America. There have been several articles written about Jews and tattooing. (The Jewish Week 10/01/2004 – God In The Tattoo Needle) There are even plans for a documentary on the subject. (http://www.tattoojewmovie.com) Indeed, there are several tattoo magazines which have dedicated entire issues to Jewish-themed tattoos. Society at large and the Jewish community in particular seem quite enthralled by the subject, and there remains a great deal of misunderstanding over the prohibition and its ramifications. To be sure, while on campus, many of my less religious Jewish students were considering getting tattoos, or had gotten tattoos before they became religious, and wanted to know what they should do now. In light of these realities, this article will endeavor to illuminate the halacha behind tattooing and to examine some of the myths and realities relating to Jews and tattoos.

To be the bearer of bad news (for those of you who would like a tattoo), the Torah tells us very unmistakably in Vayikra (19:28):

You shall not make a cut in your flesh for the dead, and a tattoo shall you not place upon yourselves – I am HASHEM.

[כח וְשֶׂרֶט לָנֶפֶשׁ, לֹא תִתְּנוּ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם, וּכְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע, לֹא תִתְּנוּ בָּכֶם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה]

While that is the end of the conversation from a biblical perspective, there is some debate about how one violates the commandment itself – what constitutes a tattoo, and what the actual nature of the prohibition is. Within the context of what constitutes a violation of the prohibition, the mishna in Makkot tells us:

One who makes a tattoo is (liable). If one wrote but did not prick the skin, or if one pricked the skin but did not write – one is not liable until one writes and pricks the skin, with black ink or blue dye or with anything that makes a mark.

[ג,ו הכותב כתובת קעקע--כתב ולא קעקע, קעקע ולא כתב--אינו חייב: עד שיכתוב; ויקעקע בדיו, ובכוחל, ובכל דבר שהוא רושם. רבי שמעון בן יהודה משם רבי שמעון אומר, אינו חייב עד שיכתוב את השם, שנאמר "וכתובת קעקע, לא תיתנו בכם: אני, ה'" (ויקרא יט,כח).]

For one to transgress the biblical prohibition from the perspective of the mishna (and indeed all later codifiers), one need perform both the pricking and the inking; either one by itself is not enough. The other facet of the discussion which is of interest is the discussion in the gemara:

Rav Acha the son of Rava asked Rav Ashi: Does R’ Shimon ben Yehuda in the name of Rav Shimon mean that one is not liable until they wrote the specific words, “I am Hashem”? Rav Ashi answered him: No. What it means, rather, is as Bar Kappara taught, citing a braita that: One is not liable unless he writes the name of a pagan deity, as it says, “And you shall not make tattoo marks in yourselves; I am Hashem. The implication is I am Hashem, and there is no other deity. I.e. you are not to mark yourselves in subservience to another deity.
Rav Malkiya said in the name of Rav Adda bar Ahavah: A person is forbidden to put ashes on his wound to heal it, because it appears like tattooing, since the ashes leave marks in the skin after the wound has healed.

[ג,ו הכותב כתובת קעקע--כתב ולא קעקע, קעקע ולא כתב--אינו חייב: עד שיכתוב; ויקעקע בדיו, ובכוחל, ובכל דבר שהוא רושם. רבי שמעון בן יהודה משם רבי שמעון אומר, אינו חייב עד שיכתוב את השם, שנאמר "וכתובת קעקע, לא תיתנו בכם: אני, ה'" (ויקרא יט,כח).]

Based on this gemara there seems to exist the theoretical possibility that one does not actually transgress the biblical prohibition unless one actually tattoos the name of God onto one’s skin or alternatively one is tattooing some type of idol worship onto his or her body. On this topic, it should be noted that the gemara simply offers these possibilities for consideration, without stating a halachic conclusion. Suffice to say, we see that the gemara takes the prohibition so seriously that one is forbidden under rabbinic edict to use ash on a wound for refua purposes lest it even look like he was tattooed after the wound heals.

Under all circumstance the best one can hope for is that a typical tattoo without kavana (intent) of idolatry is rabbinically prohibited, (Beyond the scope of this article is the possible problem of chukot hagoyim when getting a tattoo in this day and age. While it is true that most poskim hold that practices that are initiated by non-Jews for logical reasons and are not negative in nature are not considered chukot at all, it is not clear to me that tattoos would fall into this category) as tosafot suggest: [בכתובת קעקע - מדאורייתא ליכא איסורא עד שיכתוב ויקעקע בדיו ובכחול כדתנן בפ"ג דמכות (דף כא.) ולר' שמעון אינו חייב אפי' כתב וקעקע עד שיכתוב את השם פי' שם דע"ז כדמפרש התם בגמרא ומיהו איסורא דרבנן איכא הכא דאפי' אפר מקלה אסור ליתן על גבי מכתו מפני שנראה ככתובת קעקע ואפי' הויא הכא איסורא דאורייתא מ"מ הוי גט כדאמרי' לעיל כתבו על איסורי הנאה כשר אע"ג דאסור לכתוב דהא מיתהני באיסורי הנאה.
תוספות מסכת גיטין דף כ עמוד ב ]. However it is entirely possible that any tattoo falls under the biblical prohibition under all circumstances. Certainly the Shulchan Aruch (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deia 180:1) does not seem to make any distinction regarding one’s intent when getting a tattoo:

Tattooing involves making a cut in one’s flesh and filling the slit with ink or with any other dye that leaves an imprint. If one did it [made a tattoo] in the flesh of another person it is as if they did it to themselves.

Regardless of all of the above, according to all authorities, one who was forced to get a tattoo is absolutely not held responsible. The most obvious group of people who would fall into this category are holocaust survivors who were tattooed with numbers by the Germans. Anyone forced to get a tattoo is held blameless.

The rest of this article will address several myths surrounding a Jew who in fact did get a tattoo. There appears to be conventional wisdom regarding three specific issues related to tattoos on Jewish persons. First is that a Jew with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Second is the possibility that a woman (or man) with a tattoo cannot ever go to the mikveh because the tattoo is a chatzitza (obstruction). Finally, there is the notion that one clearly should remove the tattoo when one becomes cognizant of the prohibition.

The most prevalent rumor, that a Jew with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery, is simply inaccurate. My speculation is that this myth arose from a time when, in an effort to keep Jewish practice safe and consistent throughout the shtetl, people who were not shomer mitzvot (observant) were not allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This powerful deterrent had no connection with tattoos per se, but applied to anyone who did not keep the Torah fully. In this day and age, this deterrent is no longer in place regarding the Orthodox community at large, but the idea persists relating exclusively to one with a tattoo because it is a transgression whose evidence remains on the body. After all, any learned ba’al tshuva will be indistinguishable from those who are frum from birth over time. No one can look at a person and say, “Aaah – you were not always shomer Shabbat!” but a tattoo is permanent visible proof that at some point one violated the Torah, knowingly or unknowingly.

Concerning the mikva, when a person goes to the mikva they must take care that there is nothing on their person which could be considered a barrier between the water and themselves. Examples could include dried paint on the skin, a band-aid, a piece of jewelry or what not. I have heard many suggest that if a woman (or man) had a tattoo they would not be able to go to the mikva because the tattoo would act as an obstruction between the skin and the water. This is simply not the case. While it may be a source of embarrassment for one who has a tattoo to go to the mikva, it is simply not a halachic problem. I suspect, although I cannot prove, that this idea came from ignorance about what exactly a tattoo is, or how the process works. It may be that people assume that tattoos are some type of surface scab, above the skin. In reality, tattooing involves the placement of pigment into the skin’s dermis, the layer of dermal tissue underlying the epidermis. After initial injection, pigment is dispersed throughout a homogenized damaged layer down through the epidermis and upper dermis, in both of which the presence of foreign material activates the immune system’s phagocytes to engulf the pigment particles. As healing proceeds, the damaged epidermis flakes away (eliminating surface pigment) while deeper in the skin granulation tissue forms, which is later converted to connective tissue by collagen growth. This mends the upper dermis, where pigment remains trapped within fibroblasts, ultimately concentrating in a layer just below the dermis/epidermis boundary. (Tattoo Lasers by Suzanne Linsmeier Kilmer, MD, MS) We see, therefore, that a tattoo actually sits below the surface of the skin and cannot present a problem of chatzitza.

Finally, I have heard many Jews and even some rabbis say that a person who has a tattoo has an obligation to remove it immediately. It is not at all clear to me that this is accurate or would automatically be the case. Removing a tattoo is not a simple prospect and is actually a somewhat complex surgery. Pre-laser tattoo removal methods include dermabrasion, salabrasion (scrubbing the skin with salt), cryosurgery, and excision, which are sometimes still used along with skin grafts for larger tattoos. Today, “laser tattoo removal” usually refers to the non-invasive removal of tattoo pigments using Q-switched lasers. Laser tattoo removal can be quite painful, and prescription strength topical anesthetic creams or injections of anesthetic solutions are usually used to manage pain. Even laser surgery often leaves some scarring. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tattoo_removal)

As discussed in the piercing article, there is a question about when the prohibition of wounding oneself applies when it comes to cosmetic surgery. The Minchat Yitzchak argues that the prohibition against wounding oneself is relevant only if it is done in a destructive or disrespectful manner. Rav Moshe Feinstein is the most lenient of contemporary poskim on this issue, arguing that in the case of aesthetically motivated surgery which is neither destructive nor disrespectful, the prohibition against wounding is not relevant at all. Based on these sources, it would seem that if a person had a valid reason to remove a tattoo, they could do so – either because they were deeply embarrassed by the tattoo, or they were afraid of ruining a chance at a shidduch for example. It is not, however, clear from these sources that one should or could get a tattoo removed if it does not bother them. In fact, even according to Rav Moshe, it might be prohibited for someone to remove their tattoo if it does not bother them. After all, getting the tattoo was prohibited no matter what. Removing the tattoo does not remove the fact that one got a tattoo; it simply removes the visible proof that one did.

In conclusion, while there are many reasons a person may want a tattoo, and while there may be arguments for why a tattoo could be personally meaningful or even spiritual, it is objectively prohibited. At the very least it is prohibited rabbinically, but any tattoo may very well be prohibited Biblically. Having said that, once a person gets a tattoo, while it may carry real social stigma it does not carry any lasting halachic ramifications to the bearer whatsoever.

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