TATTOOING AND BURIAL
I have heard certain pious people tell youngsters that if they allow themselves to be tattooed, they cannot be buried in the Jewish cemetery. Is there a basis for such a belief? (Asked by Rabbi Bonnie Steinberg, Great Neck, New York.)
As I understand the matter, you have heard people say quite a number of times, especially to children, that if they allow themselves to be tattooed, they will not be permitted to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This seemed a strange thing to say to children or to anyone, for that matter, and I wondered what could possibly be the basis (I am sure the mistaken basis) for the warning. Yet popular notions often have some foundation.
There is, of course, no doubt that tattooing as such is regarded in Jewish law as forbidden. The prohibition goes all the way back to Scripture. In Leviticus 19:28, we are told that one should not slash the body as a mark of mourning for the dead, and one shall not make tattoos on one’s skin (the term used for tattoo is ketovat ki-aka). This, then, is taken up as a law in the Mishnah, Makkot 3:6. The Talmud discusses it in Makkot 21a and there Bar Kapparah says that tattooing is only a sin if what is tattooed on the skin is in the name of an idol. This opinion of his is taken from an earlier source, namely the Tosefta. The question is then taken up as law in the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 180:1).
Some of the later authorities note that the prohibition in Scripture does not say tattooing in general, but tattooed writing. and therefore they would not consider tattooing a sin unless it was in the form of writing or perhaps even if there were only one written letter. But in general the law seems to be that any type of tattooing, even without written words, even if it is just a picture, is forbidden. The fullest responsa discussion on the matter is by Jonah Landsofer of Prague (1676-1712) who concludes in his Responsa #31 that the word “writing” in the Scriptural verse means that even one letter tattooed is forbidden.
Now your real question must be considered: Where on earth did some people get the idea that if a person commits the sin of tattooing, he may not be buried in the Jewish cemetery? I have not found it mentioned in any book of Minhagim. Of course, as the Talmud says: If one says, “I have not seen it,” that statement is no proof that it does not exist in some book of popular customs. Nevertheless, the idea seems so absurd that I doubt if it can be seriously meant even by those who say it. What if a person does tattoo his skin? He has committed a sin, one sin among the 365 negative commandments. Is there any rule that a man who commits a sin may not be buried in the Jewish cemetery? If that actually were a rule, the cemeteries would be virtually empty.
What concerns me, however, is the source of this strange idea. I imagine that it has a following source: The verse in Scripture, Leviticus 19:28, speaks of two separate prohibitions, one, the heathen practice of cutting slits in one’s skin (self-mutilation) as a mark of mourning for the dead, and in the same verse there is the prohibition of tattooing. This prohibition of this heathen method of mourning for the dead is also given in the Mishnah and is generally prohibited. Thus there became associated in some people’s minds tattooing and the dead. This association of ideas may have led to the notion that one who commits this one sin of tattooing may not be buried in the Jewish cemetery.