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For the week ending 14 February 2004 / 22 Shevat 5764

Tattoos

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: Steve in Boston, MA

Dear Rabbi,

I have a tattoo and I heard recently that the rabbis said it’s wrong and that I couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I started asking around and heard it’s just as bad to have the tattoo removed because it damages the body. I’m confused about all this, please help.

Dear Steve,

Not only did the rabbis say it’s wrong to get tattooed, it’s explicitly forbidden in the Torah: "You shall not print any marks in your flesh, I am G-d" (Leviticus 19:28). Our Sages explained that this is referring to the scratching of the skin and applying ink so the writing is permanent. Even though today's methods of tatooing are more sophisticated than in days of old, the process remains basically the same. According to the Rambam (Maimonides), the reason for the prohibition is because it resembles the practices of idol worshippers.

However, even though getting a "decorative" tattoo is considered a sin for a Jew, it doesn't disqualify one from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. This seems to be a widespread misconception, and many people have asked us this question. Unfortunately, there are many things that Jews do against the Torah either willingly or unintentionally, but that doesn’t prevent them from a Jewish burial. Tattooing is one of them.

Regarding having the tattoo removed, the Torah prohibition of tattooing only forbids scratching one’s skin to fill it with ink, not scratching in order to remove the ink. There is, however, a separate Torah prohibition against inflicting a wound upon oneself (Deuteronomy 25:3). Would the "wounding" and painful skin-grafting involved in removing a tattoo forbid it?

Someone once asked Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, about a young woman who wanted to increase her marriage prospects by undergoing cosmetic surgery. He permitted it for the following reasons:

The Rambam writes: "A person is forbidden to inflict a wound, whether upon himself or upon others. And even…hitting someone in a hostile or insulting way…transgresses a Torah prohibition." From here we learn that the prohibition applies only when intended to damage a person, but not when it’s for his benefit. Similarly, the Talmud relates how one of the Sages lifted up his cloak when walking through thorns. "Skin heals, clothes don't," explained the Sage. Even though he was scratching his skin, it wasn't done in a hostile or degrading manner, but rather in order to protect his belongings. In addition, the mitzvah to "Love your neighbor as yourself" would allow someone to wound another, with his consent and for his benefit, as in a medical procedure.

Since the cosmetic surgery is for the woman's benefit and is done with her consent, it’s permitted. Likewise, a person may remove a tattoo, providing that the procedure is done by a recognized and qualified expert.

Rabbi Chanoch Teller relates the story of a young man from a non-religious upbringing who returned to traditional observance of Judaism. Remaining from his former lifestyle was a not-so-modest tattoo that he carefully kept hidden under his shirtsleeves. Before Yom Kippur, this young man went to the mikveh, the ritual bath, as is the custom. He embarrassingly tried to hide his tattoo, but slipped on the wet floor, revealing his mark of embarrassment to all. Utter silence, everyone staring at the sight, he couldn’t find the strength to get up. Then, an elderly Jew approached him: "Don't be embarrassed," said the old man, lowering his arm to help him up. "I also have a tattoo," as he pointed to the numbers tattooed by the Nazis on his forearm.

Sources:

  • Maccot 21a
  • Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 180:1
  • Rambam, Idol Worship 12:11.Rashi in Maccot says the reason for the prohibition is a "gezerat hakatuv", simply because G-d said so.
  • Iggrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:66
  • Rambam, Hilchot Chovel U'Mazik 5:1
  • Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, shlita, was asked specifically about removing a tattoo and he permitted it.
  • Rabbi Chanoch Teller, It’s A Small Word After All

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