Dear Rabbi Fried,
Concerning your recent column concerning tattoos, I would like to raise the following point:
(Artscroll Leviticus 19:28), “You shall not make in your flesh a scratch over a soul, and you shall not place a tattoo upon yourselves.” In footnote #5 Rashi explains why the Torah forbids making scratches in one’s flesh in mourning over the dead but does not forbid the same act as an expression of grief over some other loss. It was only over the dead that the Amorites would perform this ritual, not over other misfortunes (Mishmeres HaKodesh). The above refers to scratches. I always assumed that this meant tattoos also. That’s a huge assumption I made. But it’s all one sentence and I’m looking at the Talmud (Makkos 21a3 in the Artscroll): “… one is not liable unless he writes the name of a pagan deity.” All I’m hoping for is an opinion that it is not a biblical commandment violation so that those who have already done so before becoming religious (or Jewish) have an easier path. No question it’s at least Rabbinic, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a heavy opinion that it’s from the Torah. I just want something for the newly religious to hear so that they can be less ashamed of being religious if they have a tattoo. They shouldn’t be ashamed at all, they should be proud, but they might not know that. I know we hold you cannot get a tattoo, I just would hope someone would be more comfortable. I just hope for an opinion — even if we don’t hold that way — that it’s not a biblical violation.
Thank you for your kind reply and I am deeply honored to have the fortune of your attention both now and for decades.
Thanks for your research and for searching for a way for a Jew sporting a tattoo who is wanting to get closer to the religious community to feel more comfortable and not feel like an outsider. The fact is that, although we do consider getting a tattoo to be a Torah prohibition, even when it is without the name of an idol, nevertheless there is no transgression by wearing the tattoo, only at the time of applying it. Insofar as observance is concerned, such a returnee to Judaism is considered totally observant despite the tattoo, and even has no obligation to have it removed. They should not consider themselves an outsider, because they truly are not!
This brings to mind a very moving story of a Chasidic Jew who, in his “previous life,” was a member of a motorcycle gang and sported a large tattoo on his stomach, a great source of shame to him. Since it is Chasidic custom to immerse daily in the ritual bath, the mikvah, this Jew would wrap his towel around himself in a way that nobody could see the tattoo, and after the immersion immediately wrap himself, and all was well for a while. One year, on erev Yom Kippur, right before the fast when the mikvah is unusually full and the floors very slippery and wet, this Chasid slipped and landed on his back, his towel went flying and everyone looked up to see what happened, and shocked to the core to see this Chasid with quite some tattoo! All the noise stopped and silence reigned in the room, the Chasid turning red with shame, nobody knowing what to do! Suddenly an elderly Jew with a number tattooed onto his arm reached down to him and exclaimed, “This was my hell and that was your hell, now let’s go to the mikvah!”