What's the Deal with Tattoos? - Episode 57
Rav Avi: Hi, and welcome to Responsa Radio, where you ask and we answer questions of Jewish law in modern times. I'm Rabbi Avi Killip, here with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, and we are live from Mechon Hadar in New York City! Should we get started?
Rav Eitan: Let's do it.
Rav Avi: Our question is a short question, and I think for some people, this is a very theoretical — like, oh, that's interesting — kind of question, and for some people this is a very real and very concrete question. The question is: "What's the deal with tattoos?"
Rav Eitan: Aha, tattoos. So this is one of those questions where I feel like there's a "what" question and a "why" question, and they're probably related. Meaning, what's the scope of what Jewish sources have to say about getting or not getting a tattoo, and what's the "why" behind it, to the extent there's a problem? Which I think is always a good reminder that mitzvot that have been with us for a very long time usually have more than one dimension to them, and it's often not helpful or futile to try to reduce it to one factor. It's a really, actually, simple textual record — there's one verse in the Torah, and it says uchtov et ka'akah lo titnu bachem. Right? Do not make some kind of writing, etching, basically, in your skin. And that's it. That's what the Torah says. There's this one —
Rav Avi: It's a short episode!
Rav Eitan: It's a short episode, we're done! And actually if you look up in the Shulkhan Arukh, in the major code of Jewish law, you'd also find, it's like four little paragraphs in one section, really, really small. There's only one other place in the Bible where it seems like this is referred to — you have a kind of strange verse in the book of Isaiah where it says zeh yomar Hashem ani, this one says "I am for G-d," for YHVH, vazeh yikrah shem yaakov, and this one will call out in the name of Jacob, v'zeh yichtov yado l'Hashem, and this one will write his arm, inscribe his arm for YHVH, uv'shem yisrael yechaneh, and will go by the name of Israel. So most scholars think this refers, in some way, to actually tattooing yourself for G-d, and from that verse in Isaiah it almost sounds like it's permitted, or it's some, like, garden-variety way of pledging loyalty, and, like being a part of the Jewish people.
Rav Avi: It's permitted, or it's even a good thing, maybe?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, it might even be. It's hard to know what's going on — it doesn't seem like it's a derogatory verse.
Rav Avi: So you have the question, did Isaiah read that previous verse?
Rav Eitan: So, yeah. The question is, how do these two intersect, if they do at all? I think what's interesting to me about the Isaiah verse is — and this we'll come back to — there's almost some notion that tattooing, at least in some contexts, was a kind of a branding, like in the sense of a cattle brand, where you're actually marking your body for something or someone else.
Rav Avi: So, so it sounds like — I think, I don't know whether people who get tattoos think of it in that way. I'm curious to hear where it goes next in terms of why we think this is a prohibition, and maybe even why does it become such a mythically important prohibition.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. So, right. I think that is the natural next question — what's the prohibition about? Like, what is that thing in the Torah saying not to do? And the rabbinic sources, as is typical, take us a lot more into the "what" than the "why," which we can speculate, and we'll come back to. And here it's mostly in tractate Makkot in the Mishnah and the Tosefta, where there's some chapters in there that just go through a whole bunch of Biblical prohibitions that don't have a great place to be organized anywhere else.
And here's, to my mind, the most interesting debate that comes up there. There is a view of Rabbi Shimon in the Mishnah, who says you don't violate the Biblical prohibition on tattooing unless the tattoo is the image of ha-shem, which seems to be the name of G-d. And he quotes a verse and he says, actually, the end is uchtovet ka'akah lo titnu bachem, don't put a tattoo, let's just say, in you, ani Hashem, I am G-d, as if the verse says, don't put My name in your body. I will tell you, it was not so long after I was once learning this text, I remember being in Seattle for the summer and we were on this — for those of you who have been in Seattle, we were on Alki Beach at this more southern part of the city — and all of a sudden, there was this guy who I see playing volleyball, and he has this huge tattoo of YHVH on his back.
Rav Avi: Wow!
Rav Eitan: And I was like, this is Rabbi Shimon's tattoo right here! You know? On the beach!
Rav Avi: And it made an impact.
Rav Eitan: It made a big impact. And truth be told, when you go into tattoo parlors and you look — not that I spend a lot of time there — when you go in and you look at, like, the images that are there, it's not uncommon that YHVH is one of the stock images that you can find that people will tattoo on. So, in any event, Rabbi Shimon has this view, and I think he's reflecting some intuitive sense that the true act of tattooing that the Torah is talking about is a kind of branding for G-d, which for a Jew can only mean something if the G-d of Israel is represented in that image. But that still, that act is somehow a horrible mutilation. In other words, for Rabbi Shimon, if you think about it, the problem of a tattoo is only exposed when your theological intentions are completely pure. Like, what you're doing is branding yourself for G-d, but it could be that he understands that the prohibition is somehow understanding that the G-d of Israel wants you to do that to your body.
Rav Avi: So, I just need to clarify to make sure I'm following. The prohibition he thinks is different if you're talking specifically about G-d's name, but different in a way that is permissible, or different but still don't do it?
Rav Eitan: No, the other way. Which is to say, the prohibition is to tattoo G-d's name, and actually if you tattooed anything else, you haven't really violated what the Torah's talking about, you've just put a design —
Rav Avi: So, like, Kermit the Frog — no problem?
Rav Eitan: Well, yeah, let's put it this way — no problem from a Biblical perspective. What's never totally clear from these discussions is, are we saying it's outright permitted, or just, you know, what the Mishnah will say is, you're not liable for Biblical punishment? That's a little grayer. And we'll come back to that in a second. But the Tosefta preserves a completely opposite view: it says you're only liable when you tattoo the name of a foreign god onto your body.
Rav Avi: I could see that being a problem.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, right, makes sense. But the interesting thing, right — so, in other words, if you tattoo the name of the G-d of Israel onto your body, according to the Tosefta, you're not gonna be punished by Torah law, because here it seems like the problem of a tattoo is being disloyal to G-d and using this technology, if we can call it that, to proclaim fidelity to something or someone else. So you have these two totally opposite views. That view in the Tosefta is followed up by a more kind of ominous example of branding, but which fits with its approach, which is that you do not violate the Biblical commandment on tattooing if you tattoo a slave so that they won't run away.
Rav Avi: Yikes.
Rav Eitan: In other words, there's a branding there of that person in fact belongs to you, you have the right to brand them — the same way if, according to this view, you branded yourself to YHVH, you belong to G-d and there's no problem. It's only when you tattoo yourself to a foreign owner that you get into a difficult situation.
Rav Avi: Yeah, the first one makes me think of the phenomenon that, you know, I think no one plans to get into but people do frequently, of, like, tattooing the name of a partner, that then becomes an ex-partner, and then suddenly you're branded to the wrong god, you're branded to the wrong person.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, and it's a great example, I think, of the cultural context of how much this is still used in that way — a tattoo to brand yourself, you know, in various ways.
Rav Avi: The tattooing somebody else feels like a whole other — I don't even know if and how to open it, you know.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, sounds like another Responsa Radio.
Rav Avi: Yeah, right,
Rav Eitan: But yes. So that to me is a fascinating debate of sort of two possible ways of thinking about this. Now, two things then complicate this. First, in the Mishnah, Rabbi Shimon's view is presented as if it might be, you know, a lone opinion where, like, the majority or most people thinking about this don't have that restriction at all, and they might forbid all kinds of tattoos and designs. But more important, the Talmud here, for reasons that I'm not sure is entirely clear, re-reads Rabbi Shimon's view, which seems like originally it was only with YHVH do you, you know, violate this law, to make it the same as the Tosefta. It re-reads when he says you have to put ha-shem, the name, to mean the name of a foreign god. So that view, which seems to have existed earlier — my, you know, friend at Alki beach, you know, doing the only full inhibition — that actually disappears.
And by the time you get to the end of the Talmudic period, you really only have two views: one, which is understood to be the main view of the Mishnah, which is all tattoos might be forbidden, I don't need to mess with different names, that doesn't matter. And the second one is, perhaps only the name of a foreign god. And then the question will be, which one do we follow? And pretty much other than, like, one stray medieval source mentioned by Rabbenu Yirokham in Spain, everyone rejects the more limited view, and they assume that the Biblical ban on tattoos is broader than just those that contain a deity's name.
Rav Avi: So that ban goes from just about our G-d, maybe just about gods — is there a step of just about words versus pictures?
Rav Eitan: Okay, that's a great question. So, even if you say that the whole kind of range of tattoos is possible, do we still have some notion of this being a ketovet ka'akah, something with, you know, the root "katav," "to write," where letters are being inscribed, or Kermit the Frog, where that can also be a problem.
Rav Avi: I would say I have seen multiple tattoos of people that say "this too shall pass," "gam zeh ya'avor" in the Hebrew, which seems like both a fitting and very ironic thing to tattoo onto your arm. And so, right, that's in that category of, you know, it strikes you as, like, this is Hebrew writing, you know, it's potentially a very powerful, you know, on a necklace, on a bracelet, but what is it on your skin?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, that's right. So, this is — I think this question of letters versus images becomes another sort of proxy for a larger question, which is, is the ban on tattooing, even broadly conceived, about using the body to send inappropriate messages sort of in a very clear way through writing, or is there some kind of resistance to permanent mutilation or manipulation of the body through inks and dyes?
Rav Avi: I think that's the framework that I feel like I took from — I don't know exactly where or when I learned this — something in the sense of your body doesn't belong to you, it's not yours to mark, therefore don't get a tattoo, which feels much less about don't get the wrong tattoo, you know — then you jump to the, like, then can I get an ear piercing, another body mutilation?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, that's right. And I think what's interesting about this is in the earlier layers of discussing this, that doesn't really ever come up, or it's not sort of the main place where this is discussed, but by the time you get a broad scope for the prohibition, it seems like it's trending to having to be about that in some way. So, yeah, the discussion does go on here — basically, medieval authorities divide on this. You've got people like the Raavad saying no, of course it doesn't have to be writing, any kind of image — he didn't know about Kermit the Frog — but, right, any kind of image is a problem. And, but, like the Sefer Hachinuch and others seem to talk specifically about writing, and in particular Rav Yonah Lonsofer of eighteenth-century Prague, author of the Meil Tzedakah, in his responsa, he says yeah, you only violate the Biblical ban here with letters. Right?
And so you have, actually, very strong precedent that says anything beyond the letters, you know, might not be a Biblical problem. Now, I keep throwing in this word "Biblical problem," because basically everyone agrees that even when you step outside of whatever defined set of Biblical prohibitions you're talking about, there's still a rabbinic objection to doing this procedure in any way on your skin. Now, I think common question is for people who follow rabbinic law or are thinking about the rabbinic corpus altogether — so how does that help me, right? Why does it matter if something is Biblical or rabbinic?
And this is where you get into the interesting boundary cases, which is, you know — imagine a number of interesting possibilities. What about a tattoo that just changes the pigment of the skin, but is not really an image at all? How about someone who wants a tattoo-like operation to hide skin discoloration or scar tissue? How about someone — you raised this at the beginning — who has a tattoo and wants to remove it, and one of the ways of removing a tattoo is basically to put another tattoo over it, right, you sort of cover it up? And that's where a difference, potentially, between Biblical and rabbinic-level concerns are important, because if there's issues of sort of basic human dignity and appearance, or enabling someone to move past a prior decision to get a tattoo that they now regret, and wanting them to be able to, you know, feel comfortable with their body out in spaces where that's not as, you know, accepted, that's where these categories of siding with those who say well, it's not writing, and so therefore maybe it's not really Biblical to do this sort of added level can sort of get you there. There is one other really interesting dimension here, which will also be invoked — you know, the normal way you get a tattoo is you don't give it to yourself.
Rav Avi: Right.
Rav Eitan: Like, you sit there and someone else does it to you. So is there a prohibition —
Rav Avi: Against having a tattoo put on your skin?
Rav Eitan: Receiving a tattoo, right? What's your instinct?
Rav Avi: You know, it's interesting, because what I was gonna as is a follow-up question, a slightly different version of that, which was gonna be, is there a prohibition on having a tattoo, or is it just getting the tattoo? I.e., if someone has a tattoo on their arm, that could be totally irrelevant because it's something that they did that maybe was prohibited, you know, thirty years ago, and now they just have had the tattoo for 30 years, or is having the tattoo itself, in an ongoing way, some kind of problem? But this takes it even more granular way, even getting in that moment, if you're not giving it.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, it's kind of like the origin question of, then, that next really important question.
Rav Avi: Yeah, I don't know — I'm curious to hear what you have to say.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, so, you know there's not an explicit statement about it in the Talmud. What there is an explicit statement about is other prohibitions about, like, having your hair cut in certain forbidden ways, like "lo takifu pa'at roshkhem," don't give yourself a perfectly sort of circular haircut that, you know, removes the sideburns entirely, and that sort of thing. That's understood —
Rav Avi: That's — it sounds like, from the room, a prohibition people are less familiar with than the lo —
Rav Eitan: That prohibition is understood, it's grounded in sort of the plural form "lo takifu," you know, don't do this, plural group of people, to potentially involve the person who has it done to them, even though in that case, right, the conclusion is if you really sit there and you don't in any way contribute to what's going on, and you're completely passive, you don't violate anything other than perhaps, you know, trying to look like a gentile, or trying to blend in, in an inappropriate way. And the Maharam miRotenberg actually says this about a tattoo also — he says if you sit there and you're completely passive and someone puts a tattoo on you, you have violated a Biblical law, but the Biblical law you violated is not imitating external practices that are sort of not Jewish and unacceptable, but we can't actually apprehend you, as it were, for tattooing yourself, because you didn't do it. And that will be invoked not by anyone to allow getting a tattoo, but to allow some of the procedures that might undo a tattoo or be these sort of, you know, appearance and cosmetic concerns that have, you know, a more sort of sympathetic edge to them.
Rav Avi: So that works even if it's very clear that you're choosing to have this procedure done to you. That's surprising to me, actually — I'm surprised, it's like I could imagine this, like, counter-universe where during the omer everyone's like, you have to go to the barber to have your beard shaven because you can't shave yourself — you know, like there are a lot of other places where that might be applied that could be potentially very bizarre and awkward.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, and again, there is this sort of category of, you know, siyuah, which is assisting or contributing in some way, which arguably, in a lot of things, like a haircut, where you bend your head or turn it in various ways, you may be doing that. But it's to sort of try to lay out, as the poskim, I think, are particularly thinking about cases where it feels like people are stuck, how can you enable them, maybe, to do something that looks and feels a lot like a tattoo procedure, but is being done to sort of undo or address another issue.
But going back to what you said about do you have to take it out, you know, where this comes up in the most poignant way, and it's, I would say, the most emotional place in recent Jewish history where people get into this topic is, did Holocaust survivors that were tattooed with numbers have any kind of religious obligation to make an effort to remove those? And you get a sense of, right, my body was violated not just in the sense that I was reduced to a number but, particularly for someone with a sort of religious and halakhic sensibility, it left me with, like, a permanent thing in my body of a violation. And, you know, you find some sympathy for enabling people who want to take it off to be able to, but you do find some poskim who say amazing things, where they're like no, you should not remove it, it is a kind of badge of pride and honor that you survived, and this is a sort of version of a tattoo that, you know, G-d forbid it should never have happened in the first place, but a person shouldn't feel that they're walking around with something that they need to wipe out of their history.
Rav Avi: I will say I feel, actually, very uncomfortable with both answers on that. It feels like, to mandate people to remove it is, from what I understand, a painful procedure, sounds just as bad as mandating that they keep something that reminds them of something that's traumatic to them. But that second opinion that you're describing does feel like it gets back, actually, to your original sense of the original verse, in terms of this stands for something, it is speaking for you. Which, again, I don't personally have any tattoos, but people that I know who have tattoos, some people experience it as, yeah, it's a cool thing, it's like, oh, I don't know why I got a second piercing, just 'cause. And some people really experience their tattoos as, like, their way of making a statement about something or pledging allegiance to something. I think that there is really the spectrum there.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, yeah. And so I think sort of where to comes down to is when we talk about the Biblical prohibition, there are definitely ways you see that sort of bounded in or limited and defined in various ways, but the rabbinic penumbra around that is basically understood to kind of forbid electively or actively doing anything of that sort to your body. And as I said, even though it's not sort of the locus of discussion early on, once you've got that scope, it does seem pretty clear that there is just some sort of revulsion at the idea of manipulating or dyeing or sort of permanently marking your body in that way, in a way that most rings and other things don't quite get to the same level, because at the end of the day you can sort of remove them. But it is an interesting category that sort of is very clearly defined by a verse that clearly covers something, but the question of how the "what" and the "why" intersect does go through a number of kind of changes and shifts over time.
Rav Avi: So, I have to ask a follow-up question, which is about sort of where the mythic significance of this tattoo issue has come from, in that I would say we live in a world where we're surrounded by people and probably are all people who are guilty of different prohibitions at one time or another, and that there seems to be just a really deep significance to tattoos, that sometimes people feel like they are symbolic of something. And even this idea that— I'm curious to know where it comes from or if it's rooted in anything, that I certainly was taught, you know, was given as a child of, oh, those who have tattoos can't be buried in Jewish cemeteries. I haven't heard that in anything that you've said thus far, and I'm curious where that comes from, and if myth versus fact, if that's — if there's anything behind that.
Rav Eitan: It's total myth, it is not true. I have still not —
Rav Avi: It's like, let's be clear.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, I have still not really successfully tracked down or found anyone else who tracked down — I'm very happy to hear if folks here have added information — of where it really comes from. I'll give you a sense of why I think there's such a sort of alarm bell around it in a second. But practically, it is one of those really interesting things where there is a sharp divide between what is the common perception, sort of on the street, as it were, and what any rabbinic authority with knowledge will tell you in the opposite direction than you're used to. Right? Which is usually, rabbis are like you can't do this, that, the other thing, and people are like, I've never heard of that — and here, right, it's the other way. Any time you Google any rabbinic site on this, there's nothing to there being, you know, tattoos preventing you from a Jewish cemetery, but conduct a poll, and as you say, the numbers will be high.
Rav Avi: It is curious, right? It's like there's so many things we would love for Jews to know about. This one happens to not be true, and yet everybody knows about it.
Rav Eitan: Right. There is, there is something amazing — I'll tell you it sort of experientially, part of what I think it names for people, and I also think I've gathered this from speaking with people who at an earlier point in life decided to have a tattoo and then, often when coming into either a more intensely Jewishly observant context or sort of engaging with halakhah as a textual and authoritative tradition, feel upset about it — right, what's the power of a tattoo? The power of a tattoo is that it is an indelible mark on your body for something, right? As we've seen, it can be for a lot of different things.
And in that sense, one of the things that rattles or potentially rattles about it as a violation in the ways that we talked about is you sort of can't avoid it. In other words, there's sort of a difference between a behavior that someone does that a text or a community doesn't approve of, but the second that the person is not doing that behavior anymore, you can't see it, it's indistinguishable from anything else. And there's something about a tattoo — to the extent it falls in the zone we've talked about as being problematic in a way that I think could be both traumatic or upsetting to someone on the outside seeing it, but also to the person themselves who has had a change of heart about it, it reflects a certain kind of indelible mark on the body, in the sense that, like, probably the most analogous thing to it is circumcision. Right? The idea of this thing that is or is not marked on your body —
Rav Avi: And we're into that, so…
Rav Eitan: Well, yeah. For now. There's this sense of, does my body sort of indelibly look or not look potentially like a Jewish body — I think that at least captures some of the anxiety. And then the idea of, like, do I get to be laid to rest, which is the ultimate, final act that's done with my body, if it's been mismarked, you know, in some way. It seems to me, psychologically, that's where it comes from, even though I want to emphasize again, people with tattoos can 100 percent be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Rav Avi: Great. I hope this episode is helpful to people in both categories that I sort of introduced in the beginning — both people who don't have tattoos and think of this as theoretical and are trying to understand it, and also people who do have tattoos and are trying to understand more about what Jewish sources have to say about it. I do feel, for some reason, more with this question than with other questions, although we've said it in the past, that Responsa Radio is obviously an invitation for each of us to deepen our learning about a topic, and it's not an invitation to use it as a tool to judge other people's choices and specifically when we're talking about other people's bodies, I feel like it's worth actually saying, you know, that sources like these are not an invitation to turn to your neighbor and say, guess what I learned! You know? You're doing something wrong, or you did something wrong. But that it's really hopefully a guide for people to figure out their own opinions about their own bodies and choices. Thanks.
Rav Avi: Responsa Radio is a project of Hadar, and is produced by Jewish Public Media, which creates, curates, and promotes excellent Jewish content. Have a halakhic question you'd like answered on the show? Email us at [email protected] Or you can leave us a voicemail message at (215) 297-4254.