In Parashat Kedoshim the Torah proclaims the prohibition of making cuts on one’s skin as a sign of mourning and forbids drawing permanent tattoos on the body.
Scripture, in Leviticus 19:28, states, וְשֶׂרֶט לָנֶפֶשׁ לֹא תִתְּנוּ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם, וּכְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע לֹא תִתְּנוּ בָּכֶם: אֲנִי השׁם, You shall not make in your flesh a scratch over a soul and you shall not place a tattoo upon yourselves, I am the L-rd.
Rashi explains that the phrase “scratch over a soul” means that it is forbidden to scratch the flesh of one’s body as a sign of mourning for someone who has died, because such is the practice of the Amorites. Rashi further states that the prohibition of placing a tattoo on one’s body means etching an engraved or embedded mark with a needle on one’s body that can never be erased and remains permanently dark.
Apparently, in ancient times, mutilating one’s flesh as a sign of mourning was a widely-practiced custom among the pagans. Both the one who performs the tattooing and the person who allows himself to be tattooed was subject to the penalty of lashes.
The Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) explains that tattooing was forbidden because of its pagan origins. Both the Sforno and the Chizkuni maintain that the only “cutting of the body” that is permitted by biblical law is circumcision, and that circumcision is to be the only “sign” on a Jew’s body.
The Ohr HaChaim explains that while feelings of mourning for the dead are natural and are to be encouraged, cutting one’s flesh is a sign of excessive mourning and is forbidden. Those who suffer a profound loss may be so carried away by their grief that they begin to mutilate themselves. Though forbidden, it is understandable. Tattooing, however, is done deliberately and in many instances is not motivated by loss or sorrow, but is instead ornamental, and is, therefore, strictly forbidden.
Maimonides in the Laws of Idolatry 12:11, explains that the ancient pagans and idolaters would tattoo themselves as a sign of devotion to their “idolatrous gods.” Even though one can tattoo oneself without intending it to symbolize a commitment to idolatry, the act of tattooing itself is prohibited.
It is interesting to note that despite the strong prohibition against tattooing, one may tattoo oneself for the sake of cosmetic enhancement such as darkening one’s eyebrows for cosmetic reasons.
The great Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that cutting one’s flesh and tattooing oneself as a sign of mourning indicates that mourners may feel that their own personal value has been diminished by their loved one’s passing. Rabbi Hirsch declares that no matter how valuable and precious the relationship to the deceased was, the loss does not lessen one’s own worth or value. “Every person has his own importance and meaning before G-d in his existence here below.”
A moving story is told of a Baal Teshuva (a secular Jew who became observant) who very much wanted to go to the Mikveh (immersion pool) as an act of purification before Yom Kippur, but was embarrassed because of the tattoos on his body from his “previous” life. At the Mikveh, he tried to hide his tattoos from others, but was unsuccessful. Soon, a young child noticed the tattoos and began ridiculing the young man in front of the others in the Mikveh. Mortified, he began to cry.
An elderly holocaust survivor walked up to the young man and put his arm about him. Showing him the tattooed numbers from the concentration camp on his own arm, he urged the young man to go with him into the water, saying: “This was my גֵּיהִינּוֹם–gehinom (hell)! Most probably that was your gehinom. Let us go into the Mikveh together.”
There are tattoos, and there are tattoos!
May you be blessed.
Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day (which is preceded by Yom HaZikaron–-Memorial Day, May 11th) is observed this year on the 4th of Iyar, Wednesday evening, May 11th, and all day Thursday, May 12th, 2016.