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Chaim Ingram

Acute angles. Must I remove my tattoo?

Rabbi.  I am ashamed of and embarrassed by my tattoo.  Although it is on a part of my body which is normally covered, I have to confront it whenever I dress or shower.   Needless to say I had it done when I didn’t know any better.  I’ve considered having it removed but have been told that it can take up to a dozen or more appointments over the course of two years minimum and that the process is very painful and expensive.  I’m not sure I can face it!  But I do now try to observe halacha and wondered what a rabbi would say.  Do I have to get it removed?  Your response would be most welcome.  Thanks, Alan.

Hi Alan!

The popularity of tattoos in this day and age is just another contemporary meshugas that baffles me! When I was growing up, its ubiquity was confined largely to the seafaring fraternity. Now tattoo parlours are, of course, big business – but probably the tattoo removalists are making just as much money, pain or no pain! I would be rich if I had a dollar for every person who cannot anymore bear the sight of their engraved declaration of endearing and enduring attachment to their ex-girl/boyfriend, Guns ‘n’ Roses, that once-loved, now-detested glowering dragon, snake or lion, skull-and-crossbones or whatever other disenchanting and inescapable image confronts them 24/7.

You are more fortunate in that your tattoo is in a place which is normally covered up and that, as you also told me, the image itself – that of a butterfly – does not offend you but it is more the fact that you now realise how un-Jewish tattoos are.  Perhaps I should explain  just why this is before addressing your question.

Sefer Vayikra which largely deals with precepts of kedusha (sanctity or, more correctly, being set apart for a higher purpose) tells us we may neither make a cut in our flesh for the dead (seret la-nefesh) nor engrave a tattoo upon ourselves – ketovet ka’ka’ – for any purpose.  The word ka’ka’ (קעקע) is a hapax – it occurs only once in the Torah – and stems from a root קוע meaning a wound or incision. (Fun fact: an over-enthusiastic but now embarrassed supporter of the Premiership soccer club Manchester City had the name KAKA tattooed on his chest – he wasn’t a Hebrew scholar but a fan of the player by that name who was poised to join the club but changed his mind ultimately!) Also significant is the remarkable fact that the gematria (numerical value) of the word קעקע is identical with that of the word מצרי, Egyptian!  Tattooing was a pagan custom particularly linked with cadaver-preoccupied Egypt.  Several Egyptian mummies exhibiting ancient tattoos have been recovered dating back from the time of Abraham. No wonder the Torah, which seeks to wean us from the ways of Egypt, forbids it categorically!

Moreover, tattoos in the ancient world were a mark of servitude to pagan deities.  The Torah exceptionally prescribes ear-piercing as a mark of embarrassment for a Hebrew servant who decides he does not want to go free after six years of servitude to his master (Ex 21:6). We should seek to be servants of none other than G-D.  G-D places a mark of shame upon the world’s first killer, Cain (Gen. 4:15), as he wanders the earth as a fugitive. Most significantly of all, man was created in the image of G-D (Gen. 1:27) and thus the human body is sacred, not to be needlessly mutilated or disrespected either in life or in death, the sole exception being b’rit mila, circumcision, a sign of G-Ds covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the nation of Israel.   Finally, the way the Nazis, yemach shemam, chose to dehumanise Jews upon their entry into the extermination camp was to tattoo a number on their arm.

Now to your question.  Must you remove it? The answer is that while it may ideally be the appropriate thing to do, there is no obligation to do so (see Minchat Chinuch also Chashukei Chemed, Pesachim 75b)

In this, tattoos differ from, say, wearing shaatnez (a mixture of wool and linen in a single garment) or a four-cornered garment without kosher tsitsit. In both of these cases, you are committing a transgression every moment you continue to wear them – far better not to wear tsitsit at all than pasul (invalid) ones! On the other hand the transgression of tattoos lies in the act of making the tattoo not the ongoing presence of a tattoo on one’s skin (Patshegen HaKtav 18:3).

It could be, therefore, that, bearing in mind the debilitating pain and discomfort involved, shev ve-al ta’aseh (leaving matters as they are) will be your wisest choice. Indeed, when you look at it you may wish to train your thought-processes along the lines of “this is who I was once but  it isn’t, thank G-D, who I am now!”  As such it will serve you almost as a badge of honour!

I think you will appreciate this story. Rabbi Hanoch Teller writes in It’s a Small World After All (cited on aish.com) that he once witnessed a young man he knew who had recently committed to Torah immersing in a busy men’s mikveh in Jerusalem (Note: while there is no obligation for Jewish men to immerse in a mikve there is a strong custom for them to do so on Erev Yom Kippur and many Chassidic-oriented Jews immerse each Erev Shabbat or even every day.) As he walked towards the water, he held his hands over his arms as if to conceal something. Upon entering the water he slipped slightly – and the rather lewd tattoos that lined his biceps were exposed. Once he had viewed those tattoos with pride but now all he felt was humiliation. Noticing his discomfort, an elderly Jew stepped forward and showed him his own “tattoo” – the Auschwitz numbers on his frail arm.  “It seems” he smiled “that we have both come a long way!”

Do you have a question for Acute Angles? If so, email me at judaim@bigpond.net.au

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at judaim@bigpond.net.au
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