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.

hebrew tattoo fail

משא tat­to in oax­a­ca, mex­i­co

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
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