I am a baal t’shuva from California. Is it permissible for me to put tefillin (phylacteries) on my left bicep over a tattoo of the devil on a motorcycle? Perhaps it would be better to put the tefillin on my right arm instead?
Because there are several methods of tattooing and different kinds of tattoos, first we have to know what type of tattoo is involved. Anatomically speaking, there are five different upper cellular layers of skin in the body. The top four change every twenty to twenty-five days. Thus, if you inject ink into one of the surface epidermal layers, the ink won’t last for more than 25 days. However, if you go down to the fifth level, the ink will last for a long time. Whether you first inject the ink with a needle and then make the engraving, or first make the engraving and then inject the ink – either method is prohibited. Thus there can be tattoos that stay forever, tattoos which last from weeks to years and Spiderman and Harry Potter tattoos that wash off with soap and water. In the halachic work, Minchat Yitzhak, Responsa, Part 3, Section 11, an excellent overview on the subject of tattooing can be found. Regarding the more permanent tattoos, while some rabbinical authorities allowed pictures without words, the general opinion is that even a tattoo that is only an image, without any writing, is forbidden. Furthermore, even tattoos that are not permanent, but which last for a long time, have been prohibited by the rabbis. Interestingly, the Torah allows medication to be put on a wound even though it dyes the skin for a period of time. The visible sight of the wound makes it clear that the coloring is due to the wound and not for the purpose of tattooing. While it is not specified why the wound makes the dyeing of the skin okay, the temporary nature of the process is the major consideration of the rabbis deciding the law. Certainly, a Harry Potter rub-on tattoo, which is not permanent, is not a transgression. Since it is obvious to everyone that it is a temporary superficial coloring, which doesn’t penetrate the skin, it is not considered a tattoo. However, there is an opinion of the Maari Perla that even writing with a pen on one’s hand, such as a phone number or an address, is forbidden, even if a tattooing needle or pin is not used. The Maari Perla explains that tattooing involves two actions: writing the tattoo, and puncturing the skin to insert the dye. According to his opinion, since the writing itself constitutes half of the prohibition, this also is forbidden, since one is not allowed to commit even half of a Torah transgression. Although this is not the majority opinion, a person might think twice before scribbling a note on his palm. The important thing to understand is that G-d gave us our bodies with the stipulation that we take care of them. Our bodies are not our personal property to treat as we wish. Just as we are not allowed to do what we want with our souls, we are not allowed to do everything we want with our flesh. Just as a morally healthy individual would think twice before scrawling graffiti on a synagogue wall, a person should not make a billboard out of himself. Returning to the problem of the baal t’shuva from California. A similar question was asked of the Minchat Yitzhak (cited above). Could a person place tefillin over a tattoo of a naked women on his left bicep. Perhaps, it would be more proper to move the tefillin to the right hand, which was free of tattoos? After writing about the very serious transgression of having tattoos on the body, the Minchat Yitzhak says that nevertheless, he doesn’t see a reason for changing the Torah rationale for keeping the tefillin on the left hand, near the heart. Rather, he advises, the person should try to cover up as much of the tattoo as he can with his shirtsleeve and not look in its direction when he recites the blessing over the tefillin.