Jews with Tattoos

The tragic and untimely death of Amy Winehouse has raised the not-so-age-old question of whether Jews with tattoos can be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Apparently, this myth is so pervasive that it is even believed by large segments of the traditionally observant Jewish community. Although the "primary sources" for this myth seem to be popular culture - a line from Lenny Bruce's autobiography, an episode of the Nanny (4:9), an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm - discussions on mainstream media blogs, as well as the first question I was ever asked on an interdenominational panel, indicate that the myth is widely believed.

I am hopeful that the emerging discussion will lay to rest, once and for all, this terrible falsehood. Tattoos - perhaps because of their associations with the Holocaust, perhaps because of their indelibility, but who really knows? - remained taboo for Jews who had given up many other observances (when a distant relative started going out seriously with a non-Jew, the immediate family wasn't terribly happy, but they made their peace with it; but when they found out he has a tattoo, all hell broke loose). The tattoo taboo seems to have disappeared in recent decades, and perhaps the young generation has latched onto this myth as a way of conceptualizing the earlier generations' opposition. Alternatively, perhaps the earlier generation latched onto it because it allows them to distinguish between tattoos and the myriad observances that they abandoned. In either case, a myth is a myth, and it will hopefully be recognized as such.

My favorite Jewish teaching about tattoos is a responsum from Dayan Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss, which is reproduced and translated below. The greatness of the responsum is that it does not moralize or criticize, implicitly acknowledging that a tattoo, in the eyes of Jewish law, is a discretionary error like any other, which need not limit access to the Jewish community, living or dead:

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’ Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss) 3:11
Regarding one who served in the army, where he got an indelible 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 contemptible 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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