Doesn’t the Old Testament prohibit tattoos?

Leviticus 19:28 prohibits self-mutilation of any sort, “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you.” This prohibition was mainly because such self-mutilation was practiced in several pagan cults. A good illustration of this may be found in I Kings 18:28 where the prophets of Baal cut themselves with knives while they were trying to get Baal to send down fire from heaven.

Several years ago when I was in Israel an extension of this question was raised in the issue of “Shiur Times, The Israel Magazine.” The question raised was, “Is it forbidden to bury a Jew with a tattoo in a Jewish cemetery?”

After citing the above Leviticus passage, one Rabbi stated that even though someone has violated this law, s/he is not disqualified from being buried in a Jewish cemetery. He went on to say there is also no obligation to remove the tattoo after death and there may even be a problem in doing so as that would be a violation of “nivul ha-met” (desecrating the dead).

The column went on to discuss Jews who have tattoos and then repent. Giving an example of a man, who got a tattoo of a naked woman on his left arm, then became religious and now wanted to start putting on tefillin. Tefillin, also called phylacteries, are a pair of black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with biblical verses is worn by Jews wrapped around the arm. Deuteronomy 6:8a states, “And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm.”

The ruling given was that the man had no choice but to put his tefillin on his left arm – even though it bears a tattoo as the tattoo is not considered a barrier between the tefillin and the skin. The real problem was that a man could not recite a blessing before a naked woman, even if it is a picture, since it could lead to impure thoughts.

The solution given by the Rabbi was to: expose only as much of the arm as necessary to wrap the tefillin so that the image will not be visible, wear the smallest sized tefillin that is permitted to minimize the contact between the tefillin and the tattoo and when saying the blessing keep the entire arm covered so as not to recite the blessing in front of the image. This Rabbi went on to say it is permissible to remove the tattoo with laser surgery.

A second Rabbi agreed that the Torah (the Law or the first five books of Moses, the Pentateuch – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) strictly forbids one to get a tattoo. The contemporary problem religious Jews face today is a cultural battle between those faithful to the Torah and other cultures that use the tattoo as a way to characterize their culture.

This second Rabbi went on to say that if one has a tattoo and regrets it, one is not obligated to remove it since the prohibition in Leviticus is in getting the tattoo and not actually having one. Furthermore, to later remove the tattoo is problematic since it is destroying or cutting the body.

Lastly, both Rabbis noted, that the number of tattoos so brutally marked on the arms of the Jews by the Nazis was not relevant to this discussion.