Lee recently asked me…
Also, I have heard that you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo. Is this true? If so, why is this? What about Jews who were tattooed in concentration camps?
The question was recently discussed by participants in the Hebrew Union College Alumni list on the Internet. Here are the more interesting responses:
Date: Wed, 1 Oct 97 07:19 EDT From: a colleague in Georgia:
Our colleague in Florida asks about the Jewish permissibility of tattoos.
Funny and sweet story. Young man comes into my office. He is 20, and he says that he has an appointment to get a tattoo, but he is concerned about the rumor that you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. We take the time to get to know each other. Turns out his brother was going to be b/m at our synagogue, and that his grandmother, a refugee, is a member of my former synagogue. So we talk about Jewish attitudes towards the body vs. pagan attitudes. I also ask him to consider how his grandmother — who knows from tattoos — would deal with it, and that one should never do anything with one’s body at 20 that they might regret at 40. No big deal. We shake hands and he leaves.
Lo and behold, I see him at his brother’s b/m ceremony last Shabbat. He said to me, “Hey, Rabbi, I decided not to get a tattoo. You talked me out of it.” Mois? Very sweet. This kid is now my hero. He actually stood up to the culture and lived to talk about it.
The source material on tattoos is in Leviticus. And there are responsa as well on it. As for burial, I sense that this might be folklore that has become minhag that has largely been ignored. The larger issue is, in fact, the theological issue.
Date: Wed, 1 Oct 97 15:51 EDT a colleague from Texas writes
I substituted for another rabbi at a confirmation class, and when class was over, a younger(!) girl came in to ask me the question, should I or not. She told me she wanted a Gecko, a small lizard, around her belly button. I gave her the usual repose, but I think what stopped her from getting the tattoo was when I told her that when she was much older, and she fell in love, and she got married, and she got pregnant, her tummy would stretch, and instead of a Gecko, she would have an alligator!
the only reference I have seen,that a Jew who has a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery, comes from a T.V. Guide(!) interview with Heraldo Rivera, years ago, where he states it as a matter of course, after describing how he got a tattoo of a star of David on his hand near his thumb, because all of his friends were getting a tattoo of a cross there. He was upset that he could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery, but felt pressured to get the tattoo, but refused to get one of the cross, as he was at least committed enough to get the tattoo of a star of David.…
Date: Mon, 6 Oct 97 10:28 EDT a librarian in New York suggests
I think much of the current flurry of interest in tattooing and “burial in a Jewish cemetery” can be traced to an episode of “The Nanny” in which Nanny Fine decides to have a small tattoo removed (from her tush?) because she can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.” The episode aired (again) over the summer.
Sure, it’s folklore. But I hear no one decrying it, especially if and because it keeps our kids from marking up their bodies! (Yes, tattooing may have become acceptable among the American middle class as a whole, but some of us still rankle at it. Is it non-PC to call it “goyish?” Call me bourgeois, call me out of touch — but don’t call me late for dinner!)
Date: Mon, 6 Oct 97 20:53 EDT a Canadian colleague wrote:
Lenny Bruce in, “How to talk dirty and influence people,” talks about his Aunt Meme’s horrified reaction to his getting a tattoo on his arm during WW II while serving in the army. His “solution” was to have his arm amputated after he died, so that the rest of his body could be buried in a Jewish cemetery. No, I don’t recommend this.
While on the subject of anti-Jewish mutilations, is getting a nose job an example of “cutting off your nose to spite your faith?”
Date: Mon, 6 Oct 97 22:23 EDT and Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman points us to:
Today’s Reform Responsa, pp. 119–21: “Tattooing and Burial.” Here’s a brief summary:
Leviticus 19:28 forbids slashing the body as a sign of mourning for the dead, and tattooing one’s skin (ketovat ki-aka is the term employed). The Mishnah, in Makkot 3:6, takes up this Halachah and, on page 21a of Makkot Bar Kapparah says that tattooing is a sin only if the tattoo consists of the name of an idol. In others words, tattooing is not a priori forbidden, but writing the name of a idol on one’s skin is. The issue is discussed further in the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 180:1). Some later authorities say that the prohibition in Leviticus refers to tattooed writing only, but other tattoos would be permissible. Violation of this — out of the 365 negative commandments — should not preclude burial in a Jewish cemetery, since there is no rule that one who violates a rule may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. (Freehof notes that were that the case, our cemeteries would be empty.)
bad hebrew tattoos
There is an entire Blog devoted to this subject!
We saw our own strange Hebrew tattoo when visiting friends in Oaxaca, Mexico in December of 2008. We saw this young woman as we walked through the Zócalo.
It is hard to know what she had in mind. Among the various meanings of the word משא are: burden, load, carrying, prophecy, stowage, debt, loan, claim, bearing, tribute, utterance, present, longing.
A related subject: Piercing…
Torah Aura had a large download page dealing with Randy’s Navel Piercing by Joel Lurie Grishaver
A follow-up thought by me.
As far as Jewish thought is concerned, the human body is perfect as is, except for one minor correction needed on the male sex organ. Ear piercing is associated with slavery and all other body markings are frowned upon.
©Mark Hurvitz 1999
last updated Thursday, October 14, 2010