Shabbat Parashat Shmini | 5768
Putting on Tefillin with a Tattoo
Ask the Rabbi
Question: I am studying to convert to Judaism with an Orthodox rabbi. I know that tattoos are viewed negatively by my rabbi and others. People are unaware that I have some (not obscene ones). I am concerned that when I will put tefillin on, people will find out. I have heard that people with tattoos are not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Should I just not convert? Will rabbis accept me?
Answer: We mustn't advise whether you should convert without knowing you. However, tattoos should not be a serious factor. While there is a Torah prohibition not to have tattoos done (Vayikra 19:28), this applies only to Jews. Therefore, people should and a rabbi would know that you did nothing wrong and not cast aspersions on your worthiness as a convert. Despite rumors to the contrary, even one who had a tattoo made as a Jew (in a forbidden manner) may be buried in a Jewish cemetery. There is not even a clear obligation to remove a tattoo, as the main issue is the agreement to have it put in his flesh, not its existence (Bemareh Habazak V, 78). If it involves themes of paganism or obscenities, it is proper to keep it covered whenever possible (ibid.).
That being said, we understand your feelings and encourage you to avoid situations where you will be embarrassed later. When living as a religious Jew, your (visible) tattoos may make you stick out in a negative way. While one may either keep the fact of being a convert quiet or make use of the many sources that allow him to be proud of his brave, laudable step, you likely will not want to display elements of the past of which the tattoos remind people.
Let us take a quick look at some of the systems of removing tattoos. You should consider your options now because some systems are problematic for a Jew. Therefore, if a certain system is something you want to use (we do not give medical advice), the time to do it might be now.
One mild system (with moderate results) is to apply a chemical cream over time that fades the color of the tattoo. This is permitted for a Jew, which is good because even if you started now, your conversion may go through before you have completed treatment.
Plastic surgery (which is uncommon for tattoos) requires cutting the body and is halachically problematic because a Jew may not cause injury (even if it will eventually heal) to his body. While there are grounds for leniency when it is done to improve or beautify the body, not destroy it, the matter is best avoided when alternatives exist. Laser treatment, which breaks up the dyes and allows them to be removed from their position among the levels of skin, is usually not problematic because there is not always any damage and at least not serious scarring (Bemareh Habazak, ibid.).
A final system is called "cover up." One injects new dye that makes the tattoo only faintly visible. There is some question as to whether the full prohibition of tattooing applies only to writing or whether any mark is equally bad (see Rav Basri in Techumin X, pp. 282-7 and Bemareh Habazak II, p. 81). If inserting any mark is fully forbidden, then the cover up injection is likely forbidden. If simple marking is rabbinic and especially if it is forbidden only because it looks like tattooing, then there is room to say (although it is not clear) that when it is done in order to make the previous marks weaker, it is permitted. Furthermore, the full prohibition may not apply when it is made for a technical need such as marking a slave (obviously no longer in practice) (Shulchan Aruch and Rama, Yoreh Deah 180:3). If this rule is true (see Mishpetei Uziel II, YD 22 who says it is talking about an exceptional case), it is likely permitted when the injection is done to minimize an existing tattoo. Nevertheless, it is right to perform the cover up before converting. (B'tzel Hachochma V, 82 analyzes cover up at length and does not come to a clear conclusion).
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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated in loving memory of
R ' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld
Hemdat Yamim is endowed by Les & Ethel Sutker of
Max and Mary Sutker
and Louis and Lillian Klein, z”l.
May their memory be a blessing.