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Tattoos and Judaism: The Burial "Law" of Jewish Cemeteries

Star of david, jewish tattoo, judaismJudaism and tattoos are generally thought to be at odds with each other, at least for devout practitioners. A common question regarding tattoos for Jewish people is this: can Jewish people with tattoos be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Well, it depends. There is no blanket statement that prohibits all Jewish people with tattoos from burial in a Jewish cemetery. If that were the case, many survivors of Nazi concentration camps would not be allowed in Jewish cemeteries, considering they were tattooed or branded with identification numbers.hebrew text, jew, jewish tattoo

To get more clarity on the issue, we have to travel back thousands of years. Back when there were a lot of Jewish people in Egypt, the relations between Jews and Egyptians were hostile. According to religious texts, some Jews were enslaved in Egypt. During that time, Egyptians were polytheistic and it was common to have images of their gods or idols tattooed. Consequently, when the Jewish people left Egypt, tattoos were frowned upon as a symbol of oppression.

But Egyptian influence is only part of the story. There are also factors that are more relevant to the fundamentals of Judaism itself. For instance, according to Judaism, there is not much of a distinction between the body and the soul; the two go hand-in-hand. Thus, when you “unnecessarily” mar the body with a brand or tattoo, it is viewed as desecration, because it is considered god's creation and part of the soul.

However, according to a report by the New York Times, the “law” that says Jewish people with tattoos can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery is just a myth. Investigative reporters interviewed eight rabbinical scholars; each of them agreed that there is no such law. The source of this urban legend is believed to have started because a specific cemetery had a policy against tattoos. The story was then blown wildly out of proportion and extrapolated to all cemeteries. 

The ironic part about the supposed stigma surrounding tattoos in the Jewish community is the sheer number of Jewish people that proudly wear body art. Many Jewish people are using tattoos to feel more connected to their community and their faith. Based on what I've observed, the Star of David Hebrew text are popular designs. These Jewish symbol tattoos are complicated because they represent the faith while also representing a prohibited practice in the religion. Jewish scholars point to a few passages in the New Testament as proof that the religion dictates against tattooing the body. For instance, Leviticus 19:28 states, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead nor incise any marks on yourself: I am the Lord.” And Deuteronomy 4:15 commands Jews to take care of their bodies.

If you are a Jewish person who is thinking about getting a tattoo, you probably don’t have to worry about being barred from a burial ground. As we move deeper into the 21st century, people are becoming less rigid and more relaxed about these types of policies. Tattoos can be a cool, edgy, and modern way to show your Jewish pride — so if that’s what you want, then I say go for it! If you have lingering worries, go to a synagogue, talk to a Rabbi, or chat with your family and get the real "scoop."

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of PainfulPleasures.