Four different times recently, the subject of tattoos came up, so I thought the topic is worth its own post, to cover the various facets of the topic that I’ve come across.
  • In Tel Aviv on Pesach, the wife and I noticed during a walk through the neighborhood that more and more Israelis have tattoos. In the ensuing discussion, I maintained that it’s just another manifestation of contemporary society and, while assur, does not threaten the fabric of Jewish life and is not a social ill per se. She holds that it reflects poorly on the culture, and that there’s something intrinsically ‘sketchy’ about tattoos. Who’s right?
  • There was an article in the Jerusalem Post about tattoos removed from inmates at Buchewald and saved for display. It recalled the Gemara about R’ Yishmael Kohen Gadol, whose face was flayed on the order of a Roman noblewoman who thought he was beautiful. Treating people like artwork is terribly dehumanizing, especially when it is against the person’s wishes (if a person – like a model – decides to treat themselves as an object of aesthetic admiration, it may be morally problematic but it’s not dehumanizing).
  • I’ve gotten into Prison Break, in which a tattoo features very prominently.
  • There was a post and discussion over on Mississippi Fred’s blog about bad Hebrew tattoos. In the comments, someone asked if a Hebrew tattoo like that would disqualify someone from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. So I’d like to make it perfectly clear that there is no such halakha that someone with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I’ve heard that one a bunch of times, starting about 5 years ago, and I have no idea where that notion originated. I only know that it’s a myth. I don’t even have a good theory to explain why this legend sprang up. The earliest reference I can find to it was a crack by Lenny Bruce that after his mother informed him of this law, he said that he’d have his tattooed arm amputated and buried in a Catholic cemetery. It seems to have gained steam from an episode of “The Nanny” (Series 4, episode 9) where the issue comes up. This discussion leads me to the following story which happened a few years ago:
One of my first campus experiences, before I became a JLI Rabbi, was a panel discussion that I did at the University of North Texas in ’03 (here’s the article that subsequently appeared). At the end, there was an impromptu ‘ask the Rabbi’ session where this issue came up. I gave a three-fold answer. First, I said, “Do you think Holocaust survivors will be denied access to Jewish cemeteries?” – that was for the shock value. The student who asked the question mumbled sheepishly “Oh, I didn’t think of that”. Then, I said that it’s a myth. Finally, I spoke about the idea of repentance, and how people can make mistakes like getting tattoos and repent afterward. To reinforce this point, I quoted a teshuvah which I had recently come across, and which I will reproduce here in full. The students loved the teshuvah, and in truth it’s a really fascinating one:

שו"ת מנחת יצחק חלק ג סימן יא

ע"ד אחד ששימש כחייל, ובצבא שם לו כתובת קעקע ביד שמאל, במקום הנחת תפילין, תמונה של אשה ערומה, שא"א להסירה מבשרו, ועכשיו נעשה בעל תשובה, והתחיל להתפלל, ורוצה לדעת אם יכול להניח תפילין ביד שמאל, על אותה התמונה, או שיניח ביד ימין.

(א) הנה בהשקפה ראשונה נלענ"ד, דאף דהוי דבר מגונה מאד, ויש שאלה אם רשאי לברך, בשעה שהתמונה מגולה, וכמו שמבואר באחרונים מזה, דיש לומר דשייך משום טפח באשה ערוה, גם בתמונה פוטוגרפית ... אבל עכ"פ לא נסתלק המציאות מיד השמאל, שהוא היד הכהה, ולדעתי היות שמקום יש בזרוע להניח שתי תפילין, כמבואר בש"ע (או"ח סי' כ"ז סעי' ז'), וא"כ אף אם יהי' התמונה מתפשטת בכל הקיבורת, הלא אפשר לכסות חלק גדול ממנה בתמידית, ורק להניח פנוי מקום הנחת תפילין (ויעשה לו תפילין קטנים שאפשר עפ"י דין), אשר באותו מקום לא יתראה כ"כ צורתה, ושם יניח התפילה ש"י, וכמובן שבשעת הברכה יהי' מכוסה כל המקום, וגם הכסוי שמכסה החלק ממנה בתמידית, יהי' נעשה מעור דק מאד, באופן שאם בשוגג ישמטו התפילין קצת על מקום הכיסוי, יהי' אפשר לצרף השיטה דשייך בזה ג"כ משום מב"מ =מין במינו= אינו חוצץ וצ"ע עוד בזה, וכפי מה שאומרים אפשר להעביר ע"י בקיאים כתובת קעקע.

Responsa Minchat Yitzchak (R’ Yischak Yaakov Weiss) 3:11

Regarding one who served in the army, where he got an unremovable tattoo of a naked woman on his left arm, in the place where one lays tefilliin. He has now become a baal teshuvah and wishes to know if he can place his tefillin on his left hand, on top of the image, or if he should place it on his right arm.

It seems at first glance, in my humble opinion, that even though it is a disgusting thing, and there’s a question if he can make a bracha when the picture is uncovered, as the latter authorities explain, that ‘tefach be-isha ervah’ applies to a photographic image as well…nevertheless the weaker left arm still exists. In my opinion, since there is room on the bicep for two tefillin (see Shulchan Arukh OC 27:7), so that even if the image covered the entire bicep, it’s possible to permanently cover a large portion of it, and to leave open only the place where he lays tefillin (and he should get the smallest kosher tefillin possible) in a way that her form won’t be seen that much in that spot, and there he should lay his arm tefillin. When he makes the bracha, the entire area should be covered. Also. The permanent cover for most of the image should be made of thin leather, so that if the tefillin slip onto the cover, it’s possible to rely on the opinion that a similar material doesn’t constitute a barrier…and this requires further study since they say that experts can remove tattoos.

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