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Are tattoos allowed if not done for the purpose of grieving for loved ones?

Question:

Shalom Rabbi

There are several men in my study group that have a question concerning placing tattoos on our hands as stated in Isaiah 44:5?

” One shall say, “I am the LORD’s,” Another shall use the name of “Jacob,” Another shall mark his arm “of the LORD” And adopt the name of “Israel.”

Mishnah Makkot 3:6 “One who tatoos: If he writes without engraving, or he engraves without writing, he is not liable for lashes, until he writes and engraves with ink or pigment or anything that leaves an impression. Rebbi Shimon ben Yehudah said in the name of Rebbi Shimon [bar Yochai]: He is not liable until he writes a name [of idolatry] there. As it says (Vayikra 19): “Do not tattoo yourself, for I am G-d.”

Are we to believe Hashem’s written Torah or the Talmud Oral Torah of Sages, Prophets, or Rabbanim?

Thanks for your reply.

Answer:

In order to clearly understand this and many other question of this type, we must first understand that the two Torah’s do not contradict each other, rather the oral Torah was given specifically in order to explain the written one. It was specifically designed this way by H-shem, and often written in a cryptic way in order to keep the Torah’s true interpretation guarded and special. Therefore the oral tradition is meant to clarify the true meaning of the words of the written Torah, and was handed down from Moshe to the sages, and from teacher to student. Therefore there is no contradiction between the two, and if any seeming contradiction is must be addressed and understood.

Regarding your question; the Mishna is relating two opinions regarding when a person is liable to receive lashes for making a tattoo. Is it anytime that he inserts ink under the skin and leaves an impression, or is it specifically when it is done with the Holy name of H-shem, or lehavdil, with the name of an Idol. The opinion of the first Tanna is that he is subject to the lashes regardless of what is inserted, and R’ Shimon says that “he is not subject to the lashes until he writes…”. If we look at the Mishna carefully, R’ Shimon, who is arguing with the first opinion says that he is only (chayav) subject to the lashes if he does it in the form. Rashi says that the terminology of the MIshna is specifically talking about the lashes, therefore we can deduced from the words of the Mishna itself that R’ Shimon does disagree to the first opinion that the prohibition applies to any tattoo, however the punishment of lashes is specifically for specific words being inserted.

Additionally, the words of the written Torah Do not tattoo yourself- I am G-d”, can be interpreted in one of two ways, either that the words ” I am your G-d”  is the condition to the first part, or do we say that the first part of the commandment is saying not to make any tattoo, and the second part is an additional warning, be careful about this because I am your G-d. From what Rashi is explaining, everyone agrees to the simple meaning of the verse, that the commandment is given in a simple way, Do make any tattoos, period. Why? Because I am your G-d. R’ Shimon adds to this that there is indeed a difference between writing G-d Name, and other forms of tattooing, that the lashes part is only for writing G-d’s name. This is indeed the understanding that the Rabbis accepted, and therefore this is the way the Shulchan Aruch rules Yora Deah 180-1 , that all designs are included in the prohibition.

As a side point this prohibition is not limited to grieving over a loved one, but was given to everyone, even to a person that isn’t in mourning. This should not be mixed up the commandment not to make cuts in our bodies over a dead relative. Therefore the Shulchan Aruch rules that we may not make a tattoo for any reason, with any type of letters or pictures.

Best wishes

 

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