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I came across this article called "Jews with Tattoos? Tattooing Traditions of the Beta Israel". The author writes:

Ethiopian Jews, however, did develop traditions of tattooing (note: even though the sacred text of the Ethiopian Jewish community was not the Hebrew text of the Bible but its Ge‘ez translation, known as the Orit, this prohibition still appears there as well). This is often one of the first things people notice; anthropologist Hagar Salamon writes that she “could not shake off the shock of the first sight of them. The crosses tattooed on their hands and foreheads remained a vivid symbol for me, shattering long-standing perceptions of Jewish identity” (1999, pg. 3).

The origin of the practice of tattooing is questionable i.e., whether it was for medicinal purposes, or omens, etc. Furthermore, the author suggests that tattoos of crosses may have been to disguise Jews within a hostile (Christian) environment.

I am interested in the following questions:

  1. Do any scholars or halachic authorities provide suggestions as to whether, or how, this practice is permissible or justified lechatchila? For example: would it be permissible for beauty/decoration but not for warding off demons. In particular, although there is an element of mystery surrounding the origin, I wonder if the isolated Jewish communities of Ethiopia integrated this as a legitimate cultural/Jewish practice and were able to justify it (I cannot find this information). Noting that many Western Jews nowadays would find it 'halachically unrecognisable' and 'unjustified'.
  2. I imagine there is a problem with specifically having a tattoo that has a cross on it. If so, what should one do? (this is a relevant question for tattoo removal)
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    See Rabbi Shimon’s opinion in Makkos 3:6
    – שלום
    Jul 5, 2023 at 11:47
  • @שלום That talks about the punishment. It does not say it is muttar.
    – N.T.
    Jul 6, 2023 at 23:52
  • This tradition of theirs proves etiopim are not Jewish in origin Jul 10, 2023 at 21:58

2 Answers 2

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Rabbi Sharon Shalom, a rabbi of Ethiopian extraction, has written a book titled מסיני לאתיופיה - עולמה ההלכתי והרעיוני של יהדות אתיופיה (the title of the English translation is From Sinai to Ethiopia: Shulhan ha-Orit; the Halakhah of Ethiopian Jewry, Then and Now). The book explores many halakhic topics and presents the Ethiopian tradition, the rabbinic-halakhic tradition in contrast, and what the present "recommended" practice for Ethiopians is in light of all of that.

The section titled יסודות הבית היהודי (Foundations of the Jewish home) has a chapter on tattoos. In this chapter R. Shalom discusses the fact that in Ethiopia the Kessim tried to discourage the getting of tattoos. He notes that it was more often practiced among women, who may have believed that the prohibition applied only to men. He also notes that the tattoos were less often found among the earliest waves of Ethiopian Jews who he presumes had less exposure to the Christian world.

Do any scholars or halachic authorities provide suggestions as to whether, or how, this practice is permissible or justified lechatchila?

As noted above, it seems that technically even their own tradition did not endorse this practice and that it did not conform to the instructions of the Kessim. He also seems to suggest that this was a much later phenomenon and thus is not necessarily indicative of an indigenous traditional practice but is rather a symptom of assimilation to the larger Christian Ethiopian culture.

I imagine there is a problem with specifically having a tattoo that has a cross on it. If so, what should one do? (this is a relevant question for tattoo removal)

R. Shalom notes that the women bearing tattoos of crosses (often smack dab in the middle of their forehead) are now ashamed of it in Israel and he discusses the possibility of/debate concerning marring the original tattoo with additional tattooing as a function of כבוד הבריות (the halakhic consideration of respect for human dignity). He also notes that today due to the philanthropic efforts of others, such women can readily avail themselves of laser removal.

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  • Just what I was looking for. I have enjoyed reading his works. Thanks
    – bondonk
    Jul 11, 2023 at 6:15
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    @bondonk All debates surrounding the Ethiopian community aside, from the videos I've watched of R. Shalom he really seems like a very sweet man that is dedicated to doing God's work. Glad to have been of assistance. Jul 11, 2023 at 14:52
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Hard to prove a negative, but

  1. I have just been through SA YD 180, which is the most likely place in SA to deal with this. I have learned it with a few commentaries and other related works including Mishneh Torah, and didn't see any hints of any opinion that say there is a lechatchila way to get a tattoo. At best, there may be some opinions that provide fairly straight forward ways to get a tattoo in a way that one is patur*, which may have been utilised in order to avert a sakana perhaps? This is pure speculation.

  2. Also with regards to this topic, I didn't come across any trails that brought the halachot into the conversation of avodah zora or non-Jewish religious symbols. For this, and other reasons, it seems likely they remain in the domain of their own lav.

As I stated, hard to prove a negative. I haven't learned all sources, commentaries and responsa on this, so just take this as a suggestion that there is probably a reason why there are no answers to this interesting question. However, there may be some very interesting responsa out there and if anyone knows of it, I look forward to reading it.


* CLYOR!

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  • Good job with this! I think it's pretty clear that there's no way to lechatchila transgress a negative Torah commandment, so chazak u Baruch for even trying to find sources at all! Jul 10, 2023 at 20:23
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    @יהושעק I was just learning it unrelatedly with my chavruta :)
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Jul 10, 2023 at 20:36
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    If the reason you're patur is because it's only forbidden derabanan (as opposed to something like chatzi shiur), that derabanan may only have been decreed after the Ethiopians split from the rest of Klal Yisrael. It's still binding on them, but until recently they wouldn't have known about it so it would be an oneis situation.
    – Heshy
    Jul 10, 2023 at 23:18
  • @Heshy fascinating!
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Jul 11, 2023 at 8:21

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