Today’s daf (Yoma 8a) cites a Beraita discussing the limitations placed on a person upon whose skin the name of God has been written. According to the Beraita: Such a person ‘may neither bathe, nor smear oil on their flesh, nor stand in a place of filth’, and if they need to immerse themselves in a mikveh for the sake of a mitzvah, some say that they should wrap a blade of reed-grass over God’s name and immerse, while Rabbi Yosi rules that this is not necessary – provided that they not rub the spot and erase the name.
However, while this scenario is used to teach a point of principle about the obligations of immersing in a mikveh for the sake of a mitzvah, what it doesn’t address is why someone would have the name of God written on their skin.
Before proceeding, it should be obvious that what is being discussed is not a tattoo (which are prohibited by the Torah – see Vayikra 19:28) given that the Beraita speaks of the possibility of this name being rubbed and thereby erased. What this means is that the name was written onto, rather than under, the skin. But what would lead someone to have the name of God written onto their skin?
Rav Nachum Rabinovitch zt’l – whose first yartzeit is this Shabbat, the 12th of Iyar – addresses this point in his Yad Peshuta commentary on the Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 6:6), where he quotes both a biblical and midrashic source to explain the context of this law.
As he writes, we find in Isaiah 44:5 the statement of how there will be those, ‘who will mark their arm with ‘the Lord’ and adopt the name of Israel’, and though this is generally understood as a parable, perhaps it can also be understood literally. Moreover, Midrash Tehillim (Buber) 36:8 interprets the words of Jeremiah 21:4 of ‘I am going to turn around the weapons in your hands’ to mean that the name of God was considered to be a weapon which soldiers wrote on their hand.
It should seem obvious from the Beraita that writing the name of God on one’s skin is not something that the Torah, the prophets or the Sages encouraged. At the same time, it is also noteworthy that the Beraita does not speak harshly about those who have done so, and I think this is because while there are times when people do things that are unorthodox and less than ideal, if their motivation is sincere and is driven by a desire to feel a connection to God, then we should show sensitivity and understanding towards such behaviour, rather than simply dismiss it.
Today, there is an online fad to dismiss the irrational customs and rituals of others as being narishkeit – foolish, and there are even those who take pleasure in highlighting the folly of those whose practices and customs are either unsourced or unorthodox. Yet while I am generally very cautious about the spiritual practices which I personally adopt, I also have a deep admiration of those who adopt customs and rituals with a sincere motivation to feel a connection to God – even when I think, or perhaps even know, that such customs and rituals are not truly reflective of classic Jewish teachings.
Thus, what we learn from this Beraita is that when someone improperly writes the name of God on their body, we should take a moment to consider the fact that while what they have done may seem strange or foolish to us, it may well be motivated by a deep sense of connection and love to God, and like the Beraita itself, if and when such a person turns to us for guidance, we should offer them clear, practical and non-judgmental halachic advice according to where they are, rather than criticize them for the choices that led them to that destination.