Monday, January 22, 2007

Bo, Shemos 13:19. Tefillin and the Very Unfortunate Tattoo

The Minchas Yitzchak 3:11 has an interesting shaileh. A man had served in the army. During his time in the military, he got a tattoo on his left upper arm, precisely where one puts the shel yad of tefillin. The tattoo depicted an unclothed woman. Now the man had become a baal tshuvoh. The question was, could he put his tefillin on his left arm over the tattoo of the woman? Or would it be better to put it on his right arm?

Obviously, he cannot put the tefillin on his other arm. The Minchas Yitzchok suggests various methods by which the person might put on tefillin in a manner which mitigates the disgrace to the tefillin.

The Minchas Yitzchok, surprisingly, does not suggest what seems to me to be the obvious and correct answer. That is, this person should use indelible ink to dress her---Just cover her up with a blotch of India ink or permanent marker, which stains the skin but is absorbed completely and has absolutely no tangible substance. Indelible ink is not a chatzitzah, even if it is evident and the person does not want it there. It is no more a chatzitza than women's hair dye is a chatzitza, in other words, it's not a chatzitza at all. The Chatzitza problem only arises if the extraneous matter has substance.

Parenthetically, I don't want the title of this piece to mislead anyone into thinking that any voluntary tattoo might be Kosher. It is not. It is biblically prohibited for any Jew to voluntarily be tattooed. Remarkably, even most Reform rabbis agree that this prohibition should be honored. Only the most rebellious or angry Jewish person would tattoo himself. It is a permanent declaration that he rejects not only the halachah but also the cultural tradition of the Jewish people.


My dear brother sent me a news article that mentioned that tattoos on grafted skin also stay forever. He said that this would be a hetter to get a tattoo. I found the idea repulsive: it's bad enough to get someone else's skin, but to get skin that has a personal tattoo would be horrible. But then I realized that this gives us a better hetter for tattoos. One could have a surgeon remove a piece of skin from his body, have it tattooed, and then put the skin back. An argument could be made that there was no maiseh of nesina of a ksoves while it was bsarchem. Of course, it could be that putting it on your body gufa is called nesina bachem - as the passuk says, וכתובת קעקע לא תתנו בכם. It doesn't say the issur is the writing, it's the nesinah bachem. Still, it's a possibility that we ought to investigate.


  1. Interesting question. Perhaps one can say that even if one poured ink upon his skin, it would not obliterate the picture of the ervah, but rather would just form a second layer above it (since the tattoo ink is below the skin), so that if one looked closely, it would still be there, and thus problematic.

  2. It is biblically prohibited for any Jew to voluntarily be tattooed.

    For another viewpoint on this, see what Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi has to say:

  3. Josh: ink on a tattoo is basically like clothes on a naked person. I don't see a problem there, unless you really could see through it, but I would say that there has to be a permanent dye that will totally obscure whatever is beneath it.
    Zach, I am sure that that post makes sense to someone, but I am not that person. There is absolutely no question that even tattooing color into the skin is assur at least miderabanan, and possibly mid'oraysa, and would only be allowed in cases of great need, as would almost any issur, perhaps more so when applied by a non-jew to ensure that a procedure will not cause the loss of life or limb. The impression left by the article you cited is, to me, completely off the tracks.

  4. barzilai, do you have an email i might contact you at?

  5. Sure.

  6. BL says: Better yet: Lasers work by producing short pulses of intense light that pass harmlessly through the top layers of the skin to be selectively absorbed by the tattoo pigment. This laser energy causes the tattoo pigment to fragment into smaller particles that are then removed by the body's immune system. Researchers have determined which wavelengths of light to use and how to deliver the laser's output to best remove tattoo ink. The laser selectively targets the pigment of the tattoo without damaging the surrounding skin.

  7. What's the problem with putting on the teffilin directly over the tattoo?

  8. Over a regular tattoo, it would not be a problem. The problem here is that the tattoo was a depiction of an ervah, which would be assur to daven in front of because of velo yeiro'eh b'cho ervas dovor, to say nothing of placing tefillin directly on it.
    As to the difference between live and mere representation, as far as bizuy mitzvoh that wouldn't matter, just as zirmas susim zirmosom is not mattir being mispallel in the presence of a goyishe ervah.

  9. The problem here is that the tattoo was a depiction of an ervah, which would be assur to daven in front of because of velo yeiro'eh b'cho ervas dovor, to say nothing of placing tefillin directly on it.

    I'm pretty sure that this is wrong. Velo yeiro'eh b'cho ervas dovor only referrs to real life actual ervah, uncluding sa'ar and mekomos hamichusim and maybe kol also. All other depictions are ossur unter the catagory of devarim hamyvi'im l'day hirhur. A major chiluk between the two is that for Ervah, closing one's eyes is not sufficiant in most cases while for the other group as long as you don't see it it is okay. The tattoo would obviously be ossur only as a davar hamayvi l'day hirhur and as such there would be no problem davening as long as it's covered.

    As I was typing this the thought occured to me that it can not possably be osser to daven "in front of it" even when it is covered. Is a picture of ervah any worse than actual real ervah? We are not prohibbeted from davening in front of covered ervah.

  10. The problem here is that the tattoo was a depiction of an ervah, which would be assur to daven in front of because of velo yeiro'eh b'cho ervas dovor

    Also, if this was correct than the shaylah is not confined to putting on teffilin. It would be a shaylah if this person could ever daven at all. Or make a brochah. Or learn Torah. All of these things are ossur in the presence of ervah.

  11. Lkwd, see Orach Chaim 90:23, and tell me what you think about the relevance to this topic.
    Furthermore, I don't see a difference between a depiction and erva mamosh. We're not talking kol ishoh here, we're talking about ervas dovor. It doesn't matter that the depiction is not ro'ui l'bioh. I admit, though, that it would be nice if I could prove that.

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