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). 

While these verses may be purely metaphoric, Demsky suggests they could be taken literally as instances of tattooing that were acceptable in biblical times. He goes on to add that A. Cowley (in his 1923 book Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C.) showed that in Elephantine [a city in Hellenistic Egypt], slaves of Jews were marked with the names of their owners as was the general practice.

Prohibition and its Rationale

Regardless of the exact limits of this prohibition, over time the rabbis clearly extended the prohibition to include all tattooing (Tosafot commentary to BT Gittin 20b).our bodies

In our day, the prohibition against all forms of tattooing regardless of their intent, should be maintained. In addition to the fact that Judaism has a long history of distaste for tattoos, tattooing becomes even more distasteful in a contemporary secular society that is constantly challenging the Jewish concept that we are created b'tzelem Elokim (in the image of God) and that our bodies are to be viewed as a precious gift on loan from God, to be entrusted into our care and [are] not our personal property to do with as we choose. Voluntary tattooing even if not done for idolatrous purposes expresses a negation of this fundamental Jewish perspective.

As tattoos become more popular in contemporary society, there is a need to reinforce the prohibition against tattooing in our communities and counterbalance it with education regarding the traditional concept that we are created b'tzelem Elokim. But, however distasteful we may find the practice there is no basis for restricting burial to Jews who violate this prohibition or even limiting their participation in synagogue ritual. The fact that someone may have violated the laws of kashrut at some point in his or her life or violated the laws of Shabbat would not merit such sanctions; the prohibition against tattooing is certainly no worse. It is only because of the permanent nature of the tattoo that the transgression is still visible.

Removing Tattoos

New laser technology has raised the possibility of removing what was once irremovable. To date, this procedure is painful, long, and very expensive. However, it will probably not be long before the process is refined to the point where it will not be painful, overly involved, or very expensive. At such a time it might be appropriate for the [Conservative movement's] law committee to consider whether removal of tattoos should become a requirement of teshuvah [repentance, or reversion to behavior according to Jewish norms], conversion, or burial.

Only Voluntary, Permanent Tattooing is Forbidden

The prohibition of tattooing throughout the halakhic literature deals only with personal, voluntary tattooing. With respect to the reprehensible practice of the Nazis who marked the arms of Jews with tattooed numbers and letters during the Shoah [Holocaust], the Shulhan Arukh [the authoritative 16th-century code of Jewish law] makes it clear that those who bear these tattoos are blameless: "If it [the tattoo] was done in the flesh of another, the one to whom it was done is blameless" (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 180:2).

Tattoos which are used in cancer treatment or any similar medical procedure to permanently mark the body for necessary life saving treatment are also not included in the prohibition against tattooing (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 180:3).

The prohibition against tattoos applies only to permanent marks to the skin. Therefore hand stamps or other popular children's decorations which mimic tattoos and paint the skin in a non-permanent manner cannot be included under the prohibition of tattooing. However, l'shem hinukh (for the purpose of education), it might be appropriate for parents to make the distinction clear to their children. These also present an excellent opportunity to introduce young children to the concept that we are created b'tzelem Elokim and the implications of that concept.

Conclusion

Tattooing is an explicit prohibition from the Torah. However, those who violate this prohibition may be buried in a Jewish cemetery and participate fully in all synagogue ritual. While no sanctions are imposed, the practice should continue to be discouraged as a violation of the Torah. At all times a Jew should remember that we are created b'tzelem Elokim. We are called upon to incorporate this understanding into all our decisions.

This responsum (a formal response by a rabbi to a question about proper Jewish practice) by a contemporary Conservative rabbi reviews relevant precedents and arrives at a conclusion very much like those reached by Reform and Orthodox authorities as well. One additional point raised by others is that tattoos are often desired by young people whose parents object, making it a possible violation of the precept to honor one's parents. The practical question to which Rabbi Lucas is responding has three parts: Is tattooing permitted? Would having a tattoo prevent a person from taking part in synagogue rituals? Would it preclude burial in a Jewish cemetery?

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Rabbi Alan Lucas

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