Image: Person getting a tattoo on their forearm. (Aamir Mohd Khan /Pixabay
“Rabbi, I have heard that if a person has a tattoo, they cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Is that true?”
The textual reference for this bit of misinformation is a line in Leviticus, from the Holiness Code:
You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Eternal.Leviticus 19:28
This was originally likely a reference to outside religious practices in the ancient Near East, although the specifics have been lost to history. Many of our ritual practices, both “do’s” and “don’ts” served to distinguish the People of the God of Israel from their neighbors. Similarly, the previous verse commands:
You shall not round off the side-growth on your head, or destroy the side-growth of your beard.Leviticus 19:27
Just as there are some Jews who observe the side-growth mitzvah [sacred duty] by wearing peyot [side locks] there are Jews who would never, ever get a tattoo. However, there are many Jews with non-kosher haircuts, and a number of Jews with tattoos they got for beautification or for medical reasons.
So yes, there is a traditional Jewish aversion to body art, including tattoos. This aversion has been heightened by the experience of forcible tattooing of Jews during the Holocaust.
Jewish tradition sees the body as a holy vessel in which we are embodied in the world, and through which we carry out mitzvot. We should therefore care for our bodies and treat them with respect. In the last twenty years it has become common for people to view tattoos as a form of beautification, or as an art form, and some have even used this art form to express their devotion to Judaism or Jewish values.
It is possible that somewhere in the world there is a Jewish cemetery with a “NO TATTOOS” rule. However, I am not aware of such a cemetery, and I would be surprised to find such a place. The commandment to bury a body respectfully overrides the aversion to markings, precisely because we put such a high value on caring for the body, in death as well as in life.
So let the myth be debunked: your tattoo’ed body can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. In the meantime, concern yourself with using that body to do some mitzvot!
P.S. – If you are considering getting a tattoo in Hebrew, please proceed with caution. Unless you have an observer who knows Hebrew, it is very easy for a non-Hebrew-speaking tattoo artist to get a design backwards, upside down, or misspelled. Better yet, study Hebrew yourself, then get the tattoo.