Jews and Tattoos: Navigating a new landscape

LicenseAttribution: Noncommercial, No Derivative Works, Some rights reserved by Crushed Planet

License Attribution: Noncommercial, No Derivative Works, Some rights reserved by Crushed Planet

Once a month at our family Shabbat service we ask families to submit questions in advance in what, in lieu of a sermon, is our ‘So now you know’ slot. It’s great to see what kinds of questions arise. Sometimes it is seeking explanations for why certain rituals look the way they do; sometimes it is seeking an understanding of how to interpret a particular story or text in our tradition; often it is looking to us as Rabbis to help our congregants navigate between tradition and modernity, especially at times when the logic of one of our traditions seems less clear.

This past month I was asked to address the questions of tattoos in Jewish tradition. This included, of course, the question as to the truth of the myth that a tattoo denies one burial in a Jewish ceremony. While I can’t vouch for the individual policies of specific burial societies and grounds, there is certainly no halachah that denies burial of a Jew in a Jewish cemetery on these grounds. Just as we don’t deny burial to someone for their lack of observing another of the commandments found in the Torah, such as observing Shabbat or refraining from eating non-kosher animals or fish.

I shared the historical evolution of the source and interpretation of the Torah that led to a Jewish ban on tattoos throughout the ages. These are reviewed concisely elsewhere on this site.

But then I raised some contemporary examples that demonstrate the complexities of navigating tradition and modernity in today’s world where, rather than providing answers, I offered my congregants the invitation to discuss as families how they felt about the following examples:

1) A man wishes to honor the memory of his father, a survivor of the Holocaust. Rather than tattooing his father’s number that was permanently inscribed in his skin in the concentration camps, the son chooses to have the number 6,000,000 tattooed on his arm. It is his way of never forgetting.

Posted on January 8, 2014

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