Body Piercing in Jewish Law

Jewish law does not prohibit it, but Jewish theology and ethics raise serious questions about what statements we make with body piercing.

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While Rashi seems to understand this chip as being tucked behind the ear, [early 20th century Reform scholar] Jacob Lauterbach (in his "Responsa on Pierced Ears," CCAR Yearbook, September 1983) understands it as an example of piercing. The same expression, a "chip in the ear," is found in the above-cited mishnah of Shabbat (Mishnah Shabbat 6:6) and clearly refers to piercing. It was also a well-established custom in European countries well into the Middle Ages for tradesmen to wear pierced earrings of the symbol of their trade.

The surgical process of piercing both the ear and the nose seems to be well documented in the Bible and the Talmud. While there are many today who would find the biblical custom of nose piercing unacceptable, there are apparently many young people today who find it attractive. And while some are uncomfortable with men having their ears pierced, even this has a precedent in traditional literature. The only issue that seems to direct this matter is the fashion of the day. It is hard to argue from a halakhic [Jewish legal] perspective that there is a substantive difference between the non-permanent piercing of the ear for fashion purposes and the non-permanent piercing of the eyebrow, navel, or even nipple. The lack of aesthetic appeal to many of us is hardly a halakhic consideration.

Health Concerns and Theological Concerns

There are some legitimate concerns which could and should be raised. There is a concern that an inappropriate procedure or lack of proper hygiene involved in the piercing of a clitoris, nipple or scrotum, for example, could lead to an infection with significant consequences. Piercing should only be done by those medically qualified to address these concerns.

In addition there is the issue of b'tzelem Elokim (human creation in the divine image) and tz'ni'ut (modesty). With respect to the traditional Jewish value of tz'ni'ut, one has to wonder, if "private" parts of the body are being pierced for fashion purposes, [whether] the intent is to keep that private part private. While there may be no prohibition against such body piercings, they must be placed in the larger context of tz'ni'ut, which remains an important Jewish value.

And, while ear piercing seems to be a fairly benign practice, there comes some point where multiple piercing of the body, however fashionable, begins to challenge our concept of b'tzelem Elokim. It seems to me that Jews sufficiently educated and sensitive to the concepts of tz'ni'ut and b'tzelem Elokim will limit themselves appropriately regarding body piercing.

Beyond the Letter of the Law

I am reminded of a d'var Torah Rabbi David Weiss Halivni [a contemporary Talmudic scholar] once gave at the Jewish Theological Seminary regarding the permissibility of animal hunting for pleasure by Jews, quoting a teshuvah [responsum] by Rabbi Ezekiel ben Judah Landau. (Noda' Biyhuda," Yoreh De'ah 10) After taking some time to explain why it was indeed permitted by the Torah, he concluded by saying, "Yes, it is permitted, but what kind of a Jew would want to hunt for pleasure?" While not nearly as serious an issue as hunting, one can only wonder what questions about body piercing and tattooing tell us about our contemporary community.

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Rabbi Alan Lucas

Alan B. Lucas is Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Roslyn Heights, New York.