Take the 2-minute tour ×
Mi Yodeya is a question and answer site for those who base their lives on Jewish law and tradition and anyone interested in learning more. It's 100% free, no registration required.

A Jew is prohibited from tattooing himself. If a person with tattoos were to convert to Judaism, would they be required to have the tattoos removed?

Would a Jew who got a tattoo and later repented be required to have it removed?

share|improve this question
3  
I know a Baal Teshuva who still has a tattoo. He is a Talmid Hacham so it seems that there could be a Heter to keep it. –  Hacham Gabriel Mar 29 '13 at 16:22
    
Perhaps it is impossible to remove, and therefore it remains. However if it was possible perhaps he would be required to remove it. –  Gershon Gold Mar 29 '13 at 16:25
    
I just read a poem by Yehoshua November related to this in Jewish Action. –  Isaac Moses Mar 29 '13 at 16:59
1  
@HachamGabriel, my understanding (though I have no related experience) is that it is a very expensive and painful process that can take years to complete, and depending on where it is located, it might even be dangerous. –  Seth J Mar 29 '13 at 17:11
1  
My father had tattoos before converting to Judaism, and was not required to have them removed when he converted. When asked about his tattoos, he would tell people he was a non-Jew when they were done( and a fool besides). –  Tamir Evan Mar 30 '13 at 17:09

3 Answers 3

According to this article by Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky there is no requirement to remove a tattoo, although it could be considered a pious act to do so, especially if the tattoo depicts something immoral and idolatrous.

He discusses four ways of removing a tattoo, two of which are permissible, and two of which are questionable. Removal via a cream or laser surgery are permissible. However removal via injecting new dye or via plastic surgery are questionable, due to issues of tattooing and wounding ones self, respectively.

share|improve this answer

While there is a commandment for a Jew to not get a tatoo, Leviticus 19:28, B.T. Makkot 21a there is, however, a separate Torah prohibition - "Lo Yosif" - not to inflict a wound upon yourself, Deuteronomy 25:3. According to many poskim, removing a tattoo involves "wounding" yourself. Therefore, it is generally prohibited to a Jew to inflict pain upon himself in order to remove the tatoo. This is why you see many Jewish survivors of the death camps still wearing the numbers that the Nazis tatooed on their arms. Rabbi Hanoach Teller, in his book, "It's a Small World," tells a nice story about a Jew who had become a baal tshuva and went to a men's mikvah, but was embarrassed to show his naked body with many tatoos. An older man broke the silence and, showing him the numbers on his forearm, said, "see, I have a tatoo, also." Based on this, and the fact that a good friend of mine, Dr. Clifton Price, zt'l, a ger tzedek of amazing merit, who had a tatoo that described him as "Slim," I see no basis for denying conversion to a person because he had a tatoo when he was not Jewish.

There are sources that say it is permitted to have a tatoo removed, however. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt'l, held that a young woman who wanted to increase her marriage prospects was permitted to undergo cosmetic surgery although she would be causing wounds to be inflicted on her. He permitted it, since the surgery is done with her will and is essentially for her good. Iggrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:66. The Talmud, Taanis 23b, relates an incident where one of the Sages lifted up his frock when walking through thorns. "Skin heals, clothes don't," said the Sage. Even though he was scratching his skin by walking through the thorns, it wasn't done in a hostile or degrading manner. Rabbi Feinstein cites this, and a ruling by Maimonides, Rambam, Hilchot Chovel U'Mazik 5:1, as coroboration of his ruling.

share|improve this answer
    
But would they have to? –  Seth J Nov 19 at 17:44
    
@SethJ Dr. Price's tatoos predated his trip to the Mikvah. The Beit Din at the time, in my opinion, was pretty illustrious and his tatoo would have been obvious when he disrobed. That beit din, as I recall, included R. Hillel Klavan, shlita, R. Philip Rabinowitz, zt'l, and R. Simon Burnstein, zt'l. Given that Dr. Price was black and the conversion was in the late 1960s, the panel was very very careful. If a tatoo had been a sufficient basis to hold up the conversion, they would have used it, and stalled until he had it removed. Note Rabbi G. Anemer endorsed the conversion. –  Bruce James Nov 19 at 18:19
    
But my question is not about preventing a conversion; it's about an obligation, as a Jew, to remove the tattoo. –  Seth J Nov 19 at 19:42
    
@SethJ I pointed out it is not an obligation for a Jew to remove a tatoo. How could it be an obligation for a convert to remove a tatoo? –  Bruce James Nov 19 at 21:21
    
"According to many poskim, removing a tattoo involves "wounding" yourself. Therefore, it is generally prohibited to a Jew to inflict pain upon himself in order to remove the tatoo. " Sorry to nitpick, but can you reference one? –  Seth J Nov 20 at 4:02

According to this article, Rav Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (Techumin 22:387) viewed the removal of a tattoo as a meritorious act to avoid remembering a previous sinful life. However, Dayan Weisz (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 3:11) does not (seem to) agree that this is necessary. (This is aside from the opinion of Rav Ephraim Oshry (Teshuvot Mee’ma’makim 4:22) that Holocaust survivors should not remove their tattoos (which may have a unique status).

All citations are found in the linked article. I have not looked up any sources inside.

share|improve this answer
1  
Meritorious and required are very different things in halakha. So I am not sure there is a disagreement between Rav Bakshi-Doron and Rav Weisz. –  Rabbi Michael Tzadok Mar 30 '13 at 18:01

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.