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Ask the Rabbi: Jews and Tattoos
Rabbi Gershom Barnard

Dear Rabbi;
What are the thoughts about Jews getting tattoos? Are tattoos on Jews taboo?  This is a serious question, as I'm currently considering a tattoo for myself.  Are there also different answers for Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews?
Inking for an Answer

Rabbi George (Gershom) Barnard is the senior rabbi of Northern Hills Synagogue and a member of the Greater Cincinnati Board of Rabbis.

Dear Inking for an Answer:

For Jews, at least those of certain generations, tattoos are an emotionally charged subject. When I was a child, I was told that if a person had a tattoo, he could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. (I’ll have more to say about that particular issue later.)

The origin of the traditional Jewish prohibition of tattooing is at Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves; I am the Lord.”  The described practices were presumably part of pagan religious practice, which the Torah vigorously opposed.  The Talmudic discussion of the subject, found, for example, in the Babylonian Talmud Makkot 21a, defines the offense as involving both making some visible mark on the skin, with ink or whatever, and doing it in some way that the dye is introduced into the skin, not just on the surface.

The Talmudic discussion also, while it separates the issue of tattoos from the context of mourning, which is mentioned in the first part of the Biblical verse, connects tattooing with idolatry.  However, the bottom line of the Talmudic / rabbinic tradition of interpretation is that all tattoos, whatever their content, are forbidden.

In recent years, both the Reform and Conservative movements have had to address the issue, and both of them forbid tattooing. The Reform position may be represented by a responsum of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (a committee whose chair is Rabbi Mark Washofsky of Cincinnati). That 1999 responsum states that “when we practice tattooing, body-piercing, or any other act of permanent physical alteration, we do not honor our bodies. Instead, we engage in an act of hubris and manipulation that most surely runs counter to the letter and spirit of our tradition.” 

The Conservative position may be represented by a 1997 responsum written by Rabbi Alan Lucas (who grew up in Cincinnati), accepted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. This responsum states that “as tattoos become more popular in contemporary society, there is a need to reinforce the prohibition against tattooing in our communities and counterbalance it with education regarding the traditional concept that we are created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God.” 

The concept of “tzelem Elokim” has been understood to mean, among other things, that our bodies deserve respectful treatment, by others and by ourselves. They must not be mistreated, or (Jewish tradition says) altered arbitrarily or frivolously.

I have not been able to find a representative quotation on the subject from a contemporary Orthodox rabbi, but, in the light of the unequivocal prohibition of tattooing in the traditional literature, and from incidental remarks in the works of recent Orthodox authorities, I can safely say that Orthodox Judaism forbids tattooing also.

“Removable tattoos,” body art which involves merely painting or drawing on the skin without penetrating it, is technically not prohibited. However, since removable tattoos might look very much like permanent tattoos, it is perhaps not advisable to get those, either.

However, contrary to widespread belief, there is no traditional basis for saying that someone who has a tattoo may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery, and Rabbi Lucas’s responsum explicitly rejects that notion.

Rabbi Barnard

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