The Rights and Wrongs of Writing

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

In 2010, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin delivered a highly anticipated speech to around 1,100 supporters at a Tea Party Convention. However, she couldn’t get through it without a few notes scrawled on her hand. She famously wrote on her hand the words: energy, budget cuts, tax, and lift American spirits. The word “budget” was crossed out, though. She booked this appearance months in advance and knew that both her speech and the question-and-answer session that followed would be highly anticipated by the media and voters. Yet, she decided to save some money on index cards and use her hand instead. Unfortunately, her gaffe was picked up by many videos and photographs. The next day, she was ridiculed by many, including the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs. He said he also had written some things down on his hand. Breaking off from a question on healthcare reform, he said that he planned to make pancakes for his son if the snow in Washington continued. “I wrote ‘eggs,’ ‘milk,’ ‘bread,’ but I crossed out ‘bread.’ Then I wrote down ‘hope’ and ‘change,’ in case I forgot.” Perhaps, if you are not being videoed, you can get away with writing notes on your hand.

But is it halachically permitted? In the general populace, tattoos have become commonplace. A doctor who works in the emergency room remarked that it is rare now to see an adult patient come in for care who does not have a tattoo. But there is a biblical prohibition against getting a tattoo. The Mishnah in Makkos states (21a): “One who incises a tattoo [receives lashes]: If he inscribed the pigment but did not puncture [the skin], or [if he] punctured [the skin], but did not insert the pigment [into the incision], he is not liable until he inserts the pigment and punctures [the skin, and the pigment must be] with ink, or anything that leaves a permanent mark.” It is forbidden to write on Shabbos.

The Torah prohibition only extends to permanent writing; however, rabbinically, one cannot even write something that will only exist temporarily. For example, one should not write letters on condensation that formed on a window on Shabbos. Nor should one form letters with the gravy left on his plate on Shabbos. Although such writing is certainly only temporary, it is still forbidden rabbinically. So, too, one could make an argument that in regard to a temporary tattoo or writing on the hand, it should be forbidden rabbinically. The idea behind this theory is that the rabbanim wanted to distance someone from coming to a Torah prohibition by enacting a rabbinic prohibition. So, if a temporary tattoo would be forbidden, then one would certainly refrain from a more severe permanent tattoo. The Minchas Chinuch understands that Tosfos in Gittin (20b) subscribes to this logic. Therefore, one would not be allowed to write on his skin or use a temporary tattoo. He posits that although the Rambam does not specifically say that this practice is forbidden rabbinically, he might nevertheless agree. However, the Mishnas Chachamim disagrees. He points out that in his time, it was commonplace even for Jewish people to write marks on their skin to remember necessary information. In the end, the Minchas Chinuch suggests that the prohibition of a biblical tattoo includes an incision and permanent ink. Writing with permanent ink without an incision would only be forbidden rabbinically. However, writing on skin with regular ink would be totally permitted. Only some type of permanent writing on the skin surface would be prohibited rabbinically.

The Minchas Chinuch said that he never saw anyone write on his skin in a permanent manner. It is not clear what this permanent manner is. Perhaps the Minchas Chinuch would hold that nowadays one cannot intentionally write on skin with a Sharpie. Rav Vozner, zt”l, and Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l, are both of the opinion that temporary writing on the skin is permitted. Tosfos, who seems to hold that writing without an incision is forbidden rabbinically, is to be understood as discussing a case where there was already an existing incision – from a wound, for example. Temporary writing on the skin is too different from a tattoo to be forbidden even rabbinically. It is now somewhat common in preparation for surgery that doctors write on the skin to ensure that the correct limb is operated on. The Nishmas Avraham quotes Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt”l, as saying that this is permitted. It would seem, therefore, from the modern poskim, that temporary tattoos are permitted. As an aside, it is interesting to note that Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky wrote a well-researched article about a common myth. There is a misconception that a Jew with a permanent tattoo may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. It has even been spread through Jewish and secular media. However, Rabbi Zivotofsky writes that this belief has no basis in Jewish law. Just as a Jew who violated other Torah laws may be buried in a Jewish cemetery, so, too, may one who violated the prohibition against being tattooed be buried there.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@ gmail.com.

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