Insights into Halacha

For the week ending 23 June 2012 / 2 Tammuz 5772

The Tattoo Taboo and Permanent Make-Up Too

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
Library Kaddish

There is a widespread myth, especially among secular American Jews, that a Jew with a tattoo may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery[1]. This prevalent belief, whose origin possibly lies with Jewish Bubbies wanting to ensure that their grandchildren did not stray too far from the proper path, is truly nothing more than a common misconception with absolutely no basis in Jewish law. Jewish burial is not dependant on whether or not one violated Torah law, and tattooing is no different in this matter than any other Biblical prohibition.

This mistaken belief was personally hammered home to this author several years back, when my chavrusa, the indefatigable Rabbi Jeff Seidel, requested our hosting several secular youth for a Rosh Hashana meal. One stood out in particular, due both to his gargantuan buff size, as well as his every movement screaming military. This former U.S. soldier, in Jerusalem discovering his roots after returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, sported a few tattoos. Our four year-old daughter stared fascinated at the artwork along his arms and asked innocently why he had colored on himself. He replied, (as he dipped his challah into sugar[2]), that it was a “mistake”, but she shouldn’t worry because he was going to get them taken off since he wanted to be buried in a Jewish cemetery[3].

The Source

The Torah states[4], “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves, I am Hashem”. This prohibition only applies if the individual performs a two-step process, perforating the skin and filling the resulting hole(s) with ink, causing the mark to become (at least semi-) permanent. The Mishna[5] and Gemara clarify that the Torah attached the extra “I am Hashem” to this proscription, demonstrating the significance that is inherent in this prohibition, as tattooing is connected to idolatry. The Rambam, Sefer Hachinuch, and Tur[6] explain that this prohibition originated as a Jewish response to idol worship and paganism, as it was common practice for them to tattoo themselves, essentially branding themselves publicly as idolaters, enslaved to whichever god they served. Judaism prohibited tattoos entirely, in order to completely disassociate itself from other religions.


Micro-pigmentation, also known as derma-pigmentation or permanent make-up, is a recent development in the world of beauty aids. This process entails a needle depositing colored pigments into the skin’s dermal layer, the layer between the permanent base layer (where full tattoos are done, making them permanent) and the constantly changing outer layer, the epidermis. This procedure, usually done on the lips and around the eyes, giving a “just made-up” look, eliminates the need for tedious daily make-up application, and is semi-permanent, lasting between three to five years.[7] The question becomes, is derma-pigmentation permitted by Torah law, or is it intrinsically just another form of prohibited tattooing?

The answer is based on understanding several nuances in the Biblical prohibition.

What is Writing?

The term used by the Torah to refer to tattooing, is “Kesoves ka’ka”, literally “writing incisions”. The fact that the Torah calls tattooing a form of writing leads many Rishonim to infer that the Biblical prohibition expressly refers to writing at least one actual letter[8]. Others do not accept this conjecture, and maintain that all tattooing is assur min HaTorah[9]. However, all agree any other type of tattoo such as a picture or shape would still be forbidden, at least Rabbinically.

Pondering Permanence

One of a proper tattoo’s hallmarks is its permanence, with a lifetime guarantee. This is due to ink being injected deep in the subcutaneous dermis, and showing through the epidermis (outer layer of skin). Many Rishonim therefore conclude that the Biblical prohibition specifically refers to a permanent tattoo which will last a lifetime; all other tattoos involving skin piercing would only be prohibited Rabbinically[10]. However, it must be noted that other Rishonim make no mention of such a condition of permanence in the original Biblical prohibition[11].

Idolatrous Intent

Additionally, it is possible that one violates the prohibition of tattooing on a Biblical level only if his intention is for idolatry. As mentioned previously, one of the purposes of this commandment was to noticeably keep the Jews separate from their pagan and idolatrous neighbors. Several authorities, including the Chasam Sofer, surmise that if one would tattoo himself for an entirely different purpose, he would have violated a Rabbinic injunction against tattooing and not the full Biblical one[12]. Yet, other authorities are hesitant to recognize this supposition and maintain that intent is irrelevant; all tattooing is assur min HaTorah[13].

Managing Micro-pigmentation

So where does that leave us with micro-pigmentation?It would seem that at the very least it would fall under the Rabbinic prohibition of tattooing, if not the full Biblical one. Yet, dependant on how the Rishonim understood the Biblical prohibition, there are some mitigating factors. First of all, cosmetic tattooing of permanent make-up is not “written” in letters, nor is it actually permanent, instead lasting for several years. Additionally, since there is no idolatrous intent, rather its being performed in the name of beauty, has led several authorities to permit its use[14]. However, the vast majority of contemporary authorities reject such leniency, with the near unanimous view forbidding such procedures, maintaining that even with such rationales, derma-pigmentation would still, at the very least, fall under the Rabbinic prohibition of tattooing[15].

Yet, in case of extraordinary circumstances, such as pressing medical need, or preserving human dignity (Kavod Habrios) such as scar removal or blemish correction, many contemporary authorities are inclined to permit such procedures, as according to most Rishonim cosmetic tattooing would merely violate a Rabbinic injunction, and the Gemara states “one may violate a Rabbinic prohibition to preserve human dignity[16]”. This would be similar to undergoing elective cosmetic corrective surgery, which would be permitted, even though there is a prohibition against inflicting a wound upon oneself[17]. However, the consensus is that “just for the sake of beauty” does not seem to be enough of a reason to allow a halachic dispensation for cosmetic tattooing.

To sum up the Torah perspective on the matter, I quote the words of mv”r[18] Rabbi Yonason Wiener[19] in a related interview with the Jerusalem Post, “The ancient Greeks worshipped their bodies and tried to annihilate the small Jewish minority who saw man as more than muscle and flesh. This was a battle of superficiality against spiritually. Tattooing represents the Greek ideal that beauty is skin deep. We won the battle of Chanuka but the war continues to this day. The Jewish religion is more than skin deep!![20]

The author would like to acknowledge Rabbi Chaim Jachter’s relevant comprehensive article which appears in his recent book “Gray Matter’ vol. 3, ppg. 67 - 78, which served as the impetus for my interest and research for this article.

For any questions, comments or for the full Mareh Mekomos / sources, please email the author:

Disclaimer: These are just a few basic guidelines and overview of the Halacha discussed in this article. This is by no means a complete comprehensive authoritative guide, but rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issue. One should not compare similar cases in order to rules in any real case, but should refer his questions to a competent Halachic authority.

[1]See Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky’s excellent article on the OU website: Jews With Tattoos.

[2]This former soldier astoundingly claimed that he followed all minhagim of the Ben Ish Hai (as he put it). See Kaf Hachaim (O.C. 583, 4) that one may also dip his challah into sugar and not necessarily honey on Rosh Hashana (after dipping into salt, of course. See earlier article “Salting With Sugar”.)

[3]However, generally one is not obligated to try to get his tattoo removed. See Shu”t Mimamakim (vol. 4, 22, from Rav Efraim Oshry - a Holocaust survivor himself) who advised Holocaust survivors not to remove their tattoos, but to rather wear them as badges of honor. Regarding someone who had an inappropriate tattoo on his arm where lays his tefillin, see Shu”t Minchas Yitzchak (vol. 3, 11) and Shu”t B’tzeil HaChochma (vol. 5, 81; in the next responsum - 82, he discusses at length the halachic permissibility of various options of tattoo removal). See also Rav Eliyahu Bakshi Doron’s article in Techumin vol. 22, ppg. 387 - 391.

[4]Vayikra (Parshas Kedoshim) Ch. 19, verse 28.

[5]Makkos 21a and following Gemara.

[6]Rambam (Hilchos Avoda Zara Ch.12, 11), Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 253), Tur (Y”D 180). This issur is also codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Y”D 180), Chochmas Adam (89, 11), Ben Ish Chai (Year 2 Masei 15), and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (169, 1).

[7]There are three different methods of “permanent make-up”, all of which use a needle to pierce the flesh and have ink added: Manual method (SofTap), Reciprocating Machine (Coil), and Rotary Machine (Pen Machine).

[8]Including the Tosafos Yeshanim (m’ksav yad, cited in sefer Nassan Piryo on Gemara Makkos 21a), Tosafos Rabbeinu Peretz (ad loc.), Piskei Tosafos (Makkos, 32), Sma”k (Mitzvah 72), Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 253), Bartenura (Maakos Ch. 3, Mishna 6 s.v. kasav), Orchos Chaim (vol. 2, 22, 4), Shu”t Me’il Tzedaka (31, cited in Pischei Teshuva Y”D 180, 1), Shu”t Mutzal Me’aish (51), Shu”t Zera Emes (vol. 3, Y”D 111), and Chida (Birkei Yosef Y”D 180, 1 & 2; Machzik Bracha O.C. 340, 3).

[9]Including the Ra’avad (Toras Kohanim, Parshas Kedoshim 86), Ra”sh MiShantz (Parshas Kedoshim 3, 6, 10), Yad HaKetanah (Hilchos Avoda Zara, Lo Taaseh 37, Minchas Ani 87), Minchas Chinuch (Mitzvah 253, 5 & 7), and Aruch LaNer (Makkos 21a). Additionally, the Rambam and Rashi make no mention of the “requirement” of tattooing actual letters.

[10]Including Rashi (Vayikra Ch. 19, 28; Gittin 20b s.v. kesoves), Ritva (Makkos 21b s.v. hakosev), Rivan (Makkos 21b s.v. hakosev), Ohr Zarua (vol. 1, 716), Sefer HaChinuch (ibid.), and Piskei Tosafos (Gittin 73). See also Rav Chaim Kanievski’s Passhegen HaKsav (Ch. 6) who proves that most Rishonim hold this way as well, that there is no issur deoraysa unless the tattoo is permanent.

[11]Nimukei Yosef (Makkos 21a) and Peirush Rabbeinu Yonason (ad loc.). Additionally, neither the Rambam nor Shulchan Aruch mention a specific requirement for permanence in the Biblical prohibition of tattooing. See also Shu”t Lehoros Nosson (vol. 10, 64, 10) who maintains that lasting several years may also be considered “permanent”, similar to the laws of tying on Shabbos, where a knot that would last only several months is nonetheless referred to as a permanent knot.

[12]Tosefta (Makkos Ch.3, 9; cited in Biur HaGr”a Y”D 180, 1), Rabbeinu Yerucham (Sefer Ha’Adam, Nesiv 17, cheilek 5), Chasam Sofer (glosses to Gittin 20b, Tosafos s.v. bkesuva), Maharam Shick (Sefer HaMitzvos, 254), Shu”t Shoel U’Meishiv (Tinyana, vol. 1, 49), and the Get Pashut (124, 30; cited in Minchas Chinuch 253, 6). See also Rav Chaim Kanievski’s Passhegen HaKsav (Ch. 9) who proves that most Rishonim hold this way as well, that there is no issur deoraysa unless the tattoo is done lsheim avoda zara.

[13]Tosafos (Gittin 20b s.v. bksovet), Aruch LaNer (ibid.), Minchas Chinuch (ibid.) concludes tzarich iyun to say such a leniency. Additionally, the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch make no mention of the “requirement” of tattooing exclusively for idol worship, implying that no matter what one’s intent is, tattooing would still be prohibited Biblically.

[14]They maintain that if one’s purpose in getting permanent make-up is exclusively for beauty, then that is enough to override ‘3 derabbanans’. These poskim include Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Taharas HaBayis vol. 3, Dinei Chatzitza 8, ppg. 29 - 34), Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (cited in Taharas HaBayis ibid.), and Rav Ezra Batzri (Techumin vol. 10, pg. 282; author of Shu”t Shaarei Ezra). Rav Matis Deutsch (Shu”t Nesivos Adam vol. 1, 43) is inclined to permit it for beauty purposes as well, but concludes that most authorities do not accept this reasoning.

[15]Including Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (cited in Techumin vol. 18 pg. 114), Rav Y.Y. Fischer (ibid.), Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner (Shu”t Shevet HaLevi vol. 10, 137), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in Nishmas Avraham vol. 2 -Y”D 180, pg. 132 s.v u’lchorah, who maintains that in a similar case, when the prohibition was derabbanan, Rav Shlomo Zalman only permitted it to correct an actual blemish, and not for beauty purposes), Rav Chaim Kanievsky (cited in Shu”t Nesivos Adam ibid., 24), the Mishpetei Uziel (Shu”t, new edition vol. 2, Y”D 22, 3, pg. 89, who, in a similar case, only permitted for medical reasons), the B’tzeil HaChochma (ibid., who, in a similar case only permitted for medical need, extenuating circumstances, or bmakom mitzvah), the Lehoros Nosson (Shu”t ibid., who maintains that we should pasken each of these machlokesim lechumra, as if they were all deoraysa), the Shraga HaMeir (Shu”t vol. 8, 44 & 45, who only permits for medical need), the Rivevos Efraim (responsum in Shu”t Shav V’Rafa vol. 1 pg. 156 - 157, who only permits for medical need), the Megilas Sefer (on O.C. and Y”D, 16), the Shav V’Rafa (Shu”t vol. 1, 45, who only permits for medical need ), and Rav Baruch Shraga (Techumin vol. 18, ppg. 110 - 114, who only permits for medical need).

[16]Brachos 19b.

[17]See Gemara Bava Kamma 91b, Tosafos ad loc. (s.v. ela hai), and Shu”t Igros Moshe (C.M. vol. 2, 66).

[18]Mori V’Rebbi - my teacher and rebbi

[19]In a relevant interview with the Jerusalem Post, “Tattoo Crazy Israelis”.

[20]See Shu”t Shevet HaLevi (vol. 6, 33, 2, s.v. ul’idach) who, in a discussion unrelated to tattoos, discourages women from wearing excessive make-up, citing the Gemara Shabbos 62b, which states that excessive cosmetics was one of the reasons for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. In a subsequent responum, (Shu”t vol. 10, 137), Rav Wosner further adds permanent make-up to this category as well.

Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.

L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda, and l'zchus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam and her children for a yeshua teikef u'miyad!

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