Tattooing in Jewish Law

Though a biblical ban on tattooing remains in force, a contemporary rabbi probes the prohibition's limits and explores the rationale behind it.

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Reprinted with permission of the Rabbinical Assembly.

The prohibition of tattooing is found in the Torah: "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:28).

It is the second part of this verse from which we derive the general prohibition against tattooing. From the outset there is disagreement about what precisely makes tattooing a prohibited act. The anonymous author of a mishnah [an individual statement in the compilation known as the Mishnah] states that it is the lasting and permanent nature of tattooing which makes it a culpable act: "If a man wrote [on his skin] pricked-in writing, he is not culpable unless he writes it and pricks it in with ink or eye-paint or anything that leaves a lasting mark" (Mishnah Makkot 3:6).tattoo

But Rabbi Simeon ben Judah disagrees and says that it is the inclusion of God's name which makes it a culpable act: "Rabbi Simeon ben Judah says in the name of Rabbi Simeon: He is not culpable unless he writes there the name [of a god], for it is written, 'Or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord'" (ibid.).

The Gemarah [i.e., the Babylonian Talmud (BT)] goes on to debate whether it is the inclusion of God's name or a pagan deity that makes it a culpable act.

Maimonides clearly sees the origin of this prohibition as an act of idolatry. He includes it in his section concerning idolatry and then explicitly states: "This was a custom among the pagans who marked themselves for idolatry…." But, [Maimonides] concludes that regardless of intent, the act of tattooing is prohibited (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11).

Biblical Israelites May Have Had Tattoos

Professor Aaron Demsky of Bar-Ilan University, in an article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica ("Writing"), goes even further to suggest that non-idolatrous tattooing may have been permitted in biblical times. He cites the following biblical references: "One shall say, 'I am the Lord's,' and another shall use the name of Jacob, and another shall mark his arm 'of the Lord' and adopt the name of Israel" (Isaiah 44:5), "See, I have engraved You on the palms of my hands…" (Isaiah 49:16), and " ...is a sign on every man's hand that all men may know His doings" (Job 37:7). 

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Rabbi Alan Lucas

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