Tattooing in Jewish Law

Though a biblical ban on tattooing remains in force, a contemporary rabbi probes the prohibition's limits and explores the rationale behind it.

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Only Voluntary, Permanent Tattooing is Forbidden

The prohibition of tattooing throughout the halakhic literature deals only with personal, voluntary tattooing. With respect to the reprehensible practice of the Nazis who marked the arms of Jews with tattooed numbers and letters during the Shoah [Holocaust], the Shulhan Arukh [the authoritative 16th-century code of Jewish law] makes it clear that those who bear these tattoos are blameless: "If it [the tattoo] was done in the flesh of another, the one to whom it was done is blameless" (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 180:2).

Tattoos which are used in cancer treatment or any similar medical procedure to permanently mark the body for necessary life saving treatment are also not included in the prohibition against tattooing (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 180:3).

The prohibition against tattoos applies only to permanent marks to the skin. Therefore hand stamps or other popular children's decorations which mimic tattoos and paint the skin in a non-permanent manner cannot be included under the prohibition of tattooing. However, l'shem hinukh (for the purpose of education), it might be appropriate for parents to make the distinction clear to their children. These also present an excellent opportunity to introduce young children to the concept that we are created b'tzelem Elokim and the implications of that concept.

Conclusion

Tattooing is an explicit prohibition from the Torah. However, those who violate this prohibition may be buried in a Jewish cemetery and participate fully in all synagogue ritual. While no sanctions are imposed, the practice should continue to be discouraged as a violation of the Torah. At all times a Jew should remember that we are created b'tzelem Elokim. We are called upon to incorporate this understanding into all our decisions.

This responsum (a formal response by a rabbi to a question about proper Jewish practice) by a contemporary Conservative rabbi reviews relevant precedents and arrives at a conclusion very much like those reached by Reform and Orthodox authorities as well. One additional point raised by others is that tattoos are often desired by young people whose parents object, making it a possible violation of the precept to honor one's parents. The practical question to which Rabbi Lucas is responding has three parts: Is tattooing permitted? Would having a tattoo prevent a person from taking part in synagogue rituals? Would it preclude burial in a Jewish cemetery?

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Rabbi Alan Lucas

Alan B. Lucas is Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Roslyn Heights, New York.