I have a tattoo on my back, which I got as a teenager. Now that I am getting more involved in Judaism, I heard that one shouldn’t have tattoos. Is this true and, if so, could I or should I have it removed? If I don’t, when I die can I be buried in a Jewish cemetery?
The Torah states “…and you shall not put a tattoo upon your body” (Leviticus 19:28). Rashi explains this means to perforate the skin and add ink in a way that it will remain permanently. This law is codified in the Code of Jewish Law (“Yoreh Deah” 180:1).
This law stems from the Jewish understanding of the human body. The Torah says that we were created in the “image of God” (Genesis 1:27). This is obviously a spiritual concept, as Jewish belief is that God has no physical characteristics. There is, however, a physical connotation from the perspective of our bodies. The Kabbalists explain that every part of our bodies was crafted to coincide with one of the pathways or traits through which God connects with and controls the world. We have arms, for example, to mirror the concept that God performs certain actions “with an outstretched arm.”
The body is the vehicle through which the soul is able to have expression in the physical world and to accomplish the mission for which it was sent there. The body was perfectly fashioned to “fit” the soul, as an expression of God’s will and His connection to the world. Together, the body and soul form a partnership called “the image of God.”
To alter the body would be to mar its unique image and minimize its ability to be an expression of God’s will.
Furthermore, we are not considered the owners of our bodies. We are, rather, stewards, entrusted to utilize the body properly, protect it, and return it back to its Maker at the end of its partnership with the soul, at the end of life on this world. We do not have the right to alter the body, or even to inflict a wound upon it (Deuteronomy 25:3). This is unless, of course, it is necessary to do so for medical reasons. (Perhaps in the future, we will discuss the question of cosmetic plastic surgery, as well as the permissiveness, in light of the above, of piercing ears and the like, which has been Jewish custom for millennia.)
As far as your tattoo: According to Jewish law, once it is already done, you would not have an obligation to remove it, especially since it involves an often painful and extensive surgery. If you would want to have it removed because it makes you uncomfortable, you would be permitted to do so. This would not fall under the prohibition of mutilating the body.
A very common misconception is that if one has a tattoo, one cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This has no basis and is not true; a tattoo does not render its bearer less Jewish.
There are those still among us, may they live and be well, whom are bearers of tattoos, which demonstrate that they are survivors of the Nazi hell on earth. The fact that they remained Jewish after what they experienced is living testament to the eternal Jewish soul.
There was once a Hasidic Jew who had returned to his Jewish roots, with a large tattoo on his chest from his previous life. Although, as a Hasid, he immersed daily in the mikvah, he managed to keep his colorful tattoo hidden by his towel. One time, erev Yom Kippur, the mikvah was full of people and the floor was very slippery. Sure enough, he slipped and fell and his towel went flying. When everyone looked to see who fell, they were all dumbstruck to see their fellow Hasid with a large tattoo. Silence filled the room, with the Hasid wanting to sink into the floor. Just then a survivor reached down, with the numbers on his arm, saying “This was my hell and that was your hell, now let’s go to the mikvah!”
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is dean of DATA.