In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we read: “You are children of Hashem, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.” Here, the Torah repeats the prohibition of extreme mourning for the dead, which includes making cuts in one’s flesh or tearing out one’s hair in grief. The parallel passage in Leviticus 19:28 states “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you, I am Hashem.” The Mishnah (Makkot 3:6) elaborates on these verses that there are two forms of cutting: one is an incision alone, and the other is an incision with ink, ie. a tattoo.
The Torah’s prohibition in Re’eh makes it clear that it is forbidden to make any cuttings in the flesh for the dead. In Leviticus (parashat Kedoshim), however, cutting in the flesh is juxtaposed with tattooing (ketovet ka’aka’a). More accurately, Leviticus uses the term “scratches” (seret) instead of “cutting”, which implies making shallow incisions that don’t necessarily result in deep wounds or profuse bleeding. This is not referring to cutting one’s self in grief, but a slightly different case where a person might incise or scratch the name of the deceased into their flesh, resulting in a permanent scar that bear’s the deceased’s name. The Mishnah concludes by stating that “If he writes without imprinting, or he imprints without writing, he is not liable for lashes, until he writes and imprints with ink or pigment or anything that leaves an impression.” Thus, while cutting deep wounds for the dead is forbidden, a person who only scratches (literally “writes”) into their skin leaving a faint scar has not sinned, unless they scratched with ink to leave a very clear impression.
Conversely, a person who uses ink alone, without any scratches or incisions, has not sinned either. So, there is little to worry about if your children come home with those temporary sticker-like “tattoos” that are rubbed onto the skin with some water. Neither is there a problem with things like henna.
Having said that, the Mishnah does not end with the words quoted above. It continues to state a teaching in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “He is not liable until he writes a name there, as it says: ‘… nor imprint any marks upon you, I am Hashem.’” The Talmud (Makkot 21a) asks what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai meant by this: Did he mean it is forbidden to write a Name of God, since the verse says “I am Hashem”? Or, did he mean that it is forbidden to write the name of an idolatrous deity, and it says “I am Hashem” to remind us that there is only One God?
The Sages conclude that Rashbi meant it is forbidden only to write the name of an idol or false deity. Does that, then, imply it is permissible to tattoo God’s Name? Interestingly, it has been pointed out that Isaiah 44:5 might refer to such a tattoo: “One shall say: ‘I am to Hashem’, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob, and another shall write his hand to Hashem…” What does this last phrase—yikhtov yado l’Hashem—mean? The verb used (likhtov) is the same as that in Leviticus and in the Mishnah’s discussion of tattoos. Does this suggest that in Isaiah’s time people did have “holy tattoos” on their arms?
The suggestion that Jews may have had “kosher” tattoos seems quite unlikely. The verse in Isaiah makes no reference to a ka’aka’a or seret, or even gadad (the root used in parashat Re’eh). Perhaps a better interpretation is that it refers to tefillin, whose writings are bound upon the arm. Besides, Isaiah is not speaking of his own time at all, but prophesying to a distant future when the righteous shall “spring up among the grass” (44:4).
Whatever the case, the Mishnah holds that tattoos are only forbidden when bearing a name. It appears that tattooing for other reasons, including decorative ones, is not forbidden. Indeed, the Torah’s prohibition is only stated with regards to mourning the dead. This would forbid, for example, tattooing the name of one’s beloved that has passed away—something quite common today, and clearly in ancient times, too. If the tattoo is not associated with idolatry or mourning, there is technically no Scriptural or Talmudic basis for forbidding it.
The popular belief that a Jew who has a tattoo will not be buried in a Jewish cemetery is entirely untrue. Some say it began with one particular cemetery that refused people with tattoos to be buried there. Rabbi Gutman Locks proposed that it came from the need to identify dead bodies: if a corpse had a tattoo, it was assumed that the person wasn’t Jewish, so they were buried in a non-Jewish cemetery. Either way, it became a useful tool for fearful parents who tried to discourage their children from getting inked. The fear is justified, for Jewish tradition has always strongly frowned upon tattooing. Despite the fact that our ancient holy texts do not expressly forbid it, avoiding tattoos has become a firm Jewish custom accepted by all communities.
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), in his authoritative Mishneh Torah, records the prohibition as law (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 12:11). He argues that tattooing is a practice of idolaters, invented by idolaters, for idolaters, and tattoos generally symbolize a mark of submission to some false deity. Since the Torah is so adamant about staying away from anything that is even remotely connected to idolatry, tattoos should be completely forbidden—even if the tattoo bears a holy Name of God or a verse from the Torah.
Today, there aren’t a lack of people who sport such tattoos. While the faith of such people is commendable, using a tattoo to express that faith is ironically inappropriate since Jewish law forbids tattooing! If these people feel like Isaiah 44:5 is a Scriptural support for them, perhaps they should, instead, be more scrupulous with the mitzvah of tefillin, which may be a more fitting interpretation of that verse. After all, tefillin is a mark of devotion to Hashem, symbolizing a Jew’s dedication of mind, heart, and action towards the service of God. Just as the Rambam says a tattoo was meant to be a mark of devotion and submission to an idol, a Jew’s tefillin serves the same purpose with regards to Hashem. The only inked skin that a Jew needs is the dyed leather of tefillin.
And there are a handful of other good reasons to avoid tattoos, too.
Physical and Spiritual Health
Firstly, tattoos are a health issue. Other than the pain of the procedure itself, injecting pigments can cause allergic reactions and itchy rashes. For some people, the itchiness can persist for years. Infections are relatively common, too, with hepatitis B and C being a particular issue, as well as less serious bacterial infections. Studies show that as many as 6% of people get an infection following tattooing. Tattoos can also be problematic if a person needs an MRI in the future. The strong magnets can shift the metals in the ink and cause pain or swelling. They sometimes distort the MRI image, too. Finally, tattoo inks can be toxic, and have been linked to cancer.
To be fair, some people do experience a positive mental or emotional boost from getting a tattoo. These “mental health tattoos” can be a good thing, and even bring a person out of a depressive state. However, there are undoubtedly much better ways to treat depression and mental health issues than getting a tattoo.
On a spiritual level, tattoos are an even bigger issue. As we saw above, tattooing was associated with idolatry. It was also associated with slavery, where a master would brand his servant with a mark of ownership. This is still happening today, especially in prostitution rings, where pimps often have their logos tattooed on their “property”. Cattle and other animals are also generally branded with tattoos. Of course, no one could forget the Jews that were tattooed with a number in the Holocaust. This alone should make a Jew cringe and stay away from ink. (It should be noted here that a person who is tattooed against their will is not culpable in any way, and bearing the tattoo is certainly not a sin—as the Rambam makes explicitly clear in the same passage cited above.)
Then there’s the issue of modesty. Jews are expected to uphold the highest standards of modesty, and there are few places on the body where a tattoo would even be visible to the public. Tattoos tend to be placed in areas that shouldn’t be exposed to begin with—which, in many cases, goes to show the real motivation for getting one. Tattoos are often just a means of attracting attention. Other people, meanwhile, have so many tattoos that the reasoning could be the exact opposite: It has been said that in a world where people are less and less covered by clothes, they subconsciously seek other means to hide their skin. In a strange inversion of modesty, there are those who hide behind their tattoos.
But for many people, a tattoo is done on a whim, or in one’s youth, or without too much forethought. The result is that about a third of people who get a tattoo end up regretting it, and about half of those seek expensive tattoo removal procedures. It is therefore better to stay away from tattoos entirely.
And lastly, it is important to keep in mind that the Mishnah states it isn’t just forbidden to get a tattoo, but also to tattoo “the flesh of one’s fellow”. The act of tattooing itself is problematic, and therefore, “tattoo artist” is not a kosher profession for any Jew.