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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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.

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Rabbi Alan Lucas

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