Rabbi Yehuda Finchas
Eddie and Tami asked me if permanent make-up is permitted according to halacha. Eddie wanted to have a micropigmentation procedure to cover a facial scar after a recent injury. And Tami inquired about microblading (a semi-permanent tattooing technique used for thinning or absent eyebrows) in the shape of eyebrows, as her eyebrows fell out after chemotherapy treatment. They know that the Torah prohibits tattoos (Vayikra 19:28) and some friends told them their rabbi allowed these procedures since they were not similar to tattoos and others told them their rabbi forbade them because they were too similar. Eddie and Tami asked me what was the position of the Sephardi Hashimi.
Permanent make-up is not exactly permanent. Unlike a tattoo, permanent make-up lasts only up to three years, as the pigment does not penetrate the skin to the level and depth as that of a regular tattoo. Generally, permanent make-up is employed for cosmetic purposes. The question is whether this type of pigmentation is sufficiently similar to a tattoo and is therefore forbidden or are the differences between the two significant enough to permit permanent make-up? I discussed plastic surgery in the July issue and explained that Hacham Ovadia, zt”l (Yabia Omer CM, 8:12) permits cosmetic surgery for reasons of shalom bayit or to help marriage prospects. In Taharat Habayit (Vol. 3, p. 28), Hacham Ovadia has another long responsa discussing “permanent” make-up, and I will briefly summarize his main points.
Hacham Ovadia’s Reasoning
Hacham Ovadia explains there are various halachic reasons why permanent make-up is different than a tattoo, and we will discuss three of his main points:
- The Gemara (Makkot 21a) discusses forbidden tattoos: Rav Shimon taught that the prohibition only pertains to a tattoo that includes writing the name of an avoda zara. The Hachamim, however, disagree and rule that any tattoo is prohibited. Shulchan Aruch (YD 180:1) follows the majority opinion of the Hachamim. However, the Rif and Rosh rule like Rav Shimon. And there is much debate as to whether the Rambam (Avoda Zara 12:11) follows the position of the Hachamim or Rav Shimon.
- The Torah describes a tattoo as “ketovet ka’aka.” Ketovet has the same root as ktav, which literally means to write. Therefore, some Rishonim, like the Meil Zedaka, understand that even the Hachamim agree that a person violates the biblical prohibition of ketovet ka’aka only if the tattoo includes letters. However, a tattoo that does not include letters is an issur d’rabbanan – rabbinically prohibited, as it is not considered a ketovet.
- The third difference between a tattoo and “permanent” make-up is that according to many poskim, a forbidden tattoo must be literally permanent, something that is forever etched into the skin. Hacham Ovadia quotes Rashi (Vayikra 19:28) and other Rishonim who make this distinction and he therefore rules that the only tattoos that are biblically prohibited are those that literally last forever. Any tattoo that will disappear over time is only a lesser violation of an issur d’rabbanan.
Hacham Ovadia explains that since permanent make-up does not contain letters, it certainly is not avoda zara, and it is not “forever” etched into the skin. On the other hand, however, the simple understanding of the Shulchan Aruch, who does not make these three distinctions, is that all tattoos are prohibited. Consequently, it is difficult to rule leniently based on these factors alone. Hacham Ovadia writes that initially he ruled against allowing permanent make-up and, in fact, this is the position of some contemporary poskim.
Hacham Ovadia’s Conclusion
However, upon reevaluation, Hacham Ovadia concludes leniently because of a combination of factors: 1. Rif and Rosh rule like Rav Shimon that a prohibited tattoo is only one that includes avoda zara script. 2. Even the Meil Zedaka, who disagrees, still requires that a biblically prohibited tattoo must include some letters. 3. Rashi prohibits only tattoos that will actually last forever, as opposed to permanent make-up that will not. In cases of kavod habriot (human dignity) when people feel embarrassed and ashamed due to their scars, there is room can be lenient and incorporate these three leniencies and to allow micropigmentation to cover scars or microblading to create the illusion of eyebrows. As with all complex halachic questions, especially when there are differences of opinion, always refer to your local posek. But according to Hacham Ovadia, it is permitted le’chatchila in these specific situations.
Rabbi Yehuda Finchas is a worldwide expert, lecturer, and writer on medical halacha, and is the head of the Torat Habayit Medical Halacha Institute. His latest book is “Brain Death in Halacha and the Tower of Babel Syndrome.” To contact Rabbi Finchas, email email@example.com