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Why Does Judaism Forbid Tattoos?

Why Does Judaism Forbid Tattoos?

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The source of this prohibition is Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves.” This prohibition applies to all tattoos besides those made for medical purposes, such as to guide a surgeon making an incision.

Although some of the commentaries1 seem to believe that this is one of the Torah’s chukim, the commandments whose rationales transcend the ken of human intellect, other commentators do offer several explanations for this prohibition:

  1. The human body is G‑d’s creation, and it is therefore unbefitting to mutilate G‑d’s handiwork. It is especially unbefitting for members of G‑d’s chosen nation to mutilate their bodies. One must believe that G‑d, the greatest artisan of all, formed him or her in the most fitting way, and one must not change this form. Changing one’s body (unless it is for health reasons) is tantamount to insulting G‑d’s handiwork.2
  2. In ancient times, it was customary for idol-worshippers to tattoo themselves as a sign of commitment to their deity—much like an animal that is branded by its owner. On many occasions the Torah forbids practices that emulate pagan customs, considering that following their traditions is the first step towards subscribing to their idolatrous beliefs and services.3
  3. The covenant of circumcision is unique in its being a sign in our bodies of our relationship with G‑d. Making other signs in one’s body would weaken and cheapen this special sign.4

See also Can a Person with a Tattoo Be Buried in a Jewish Cemetery? and I Want a Star of David Tattoo.

Footnotes
1.
See Rashi on the Talmud, Makkot 21a.
2.
See Siftei Cohen to Leviticus 19:28; Rashi to Deuteronomy 14:1; Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 11:41.
3.
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11.
4.
Sforno to Leviticus 19:27.
Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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Discussion (161)
April 8, 2016
"So, if God makes you ugly, you have to live with it, but if you get a disease he made a mistake?" - anonymous

Do tattoos make a person less ugly? Should people only be beautiful? Is a prohibition on tattoos reason to mock or scoff?
Anonymous
March 11, 2016
That would not be permitted. There are cases of medical "tattoos" to recreate the look of certain parts of the body that may have been damaged or removed through surgery, which might be permitted. An expert rabbi would need to determine this on a case by case basis.
Simcha Bart for Chabad.org
March 9, 2016
What if you had hip surgery and you hate the scars on your upper thigh?? Can you get a tattoo on your body to cover it? (A tattoo that is not of a person or animal etc)
Anonymous
Brooklyn
July 8, 2015
Stigma
A cow is branded to signify that it is owned. This marking of the flesh in blood is a profound act because it produces a lasting stigma which in the eyes of all onlookers (and the lord) is created to signify that the marked thing by contract is just that: a thing... a beast... an object to be used as the marker sees fit. Note that in this relationship, the one receiving the mark has no say in the matter. In magic practice, a pagan writes on flesh (parchment is flesh) with blood (spiritual payment) to establish a contract with a pagan idol or demon. It should thus be made clear to any person thinking about a tattoo, that he/she has no way of knowing what the true intentions of the person doing the marking are. Worse yet, in many cases we are talking about artists that openly declare they practice pagan magic and idolatry. A final note: Brit Milah is the exception which confirms the commandment not to mark, that mark alone was a direct order/contract with the eternal ...if you will ...the lord's way of saying this group is mine
Marco Sassano
April 29, 2015
Viyikra 9:28 (leviticus)
As I have learned to understand this prohibition after years of Torah study and due diligence. This prohibition was intended to inhibit the practice of ancestor worship as was commonly practiced in Egypt before the exodus, and is directly tied to the spiritial meaning of the comandment "to never return to Egypt." In order to become a holy and seperate people we had to break away from any thing and everything that could keep us emeshed in the pagan customs that were practiced in the land of our bondage...As a way to place a "fence around the Torah" and to preserve our culture and identitity as a people the sages wisely included any type of marking for any reason into this prohibition. It is better to apply the strictest of interpretations rather than to risk violating the law....Dean Francis, a Jew.
Dean Francis
Escondido, California.
March 17, 2015
Re: Disease/Physical Appearance
The simplest difference between the two is, that we are instructed in the Torah to protect life for any cost, and are adjoined to heal the sick. Clearly, the Torah itself values medical intervention and preservation of healthy life.

Cosmetic surgery, however, is for purely aesthetic purposes, and does not provide for a healthier life.

There are instances where cosmetic surgery permitted and even encouraged. For more details see here:
Shaul Wolf
Chabad.org
March 17, 2015
Re:
Plastic surgery is a complex issue, and is discussed at length by halachic authorities.

See here for further details:
Shaul Wolf
Chabad.org
March 16, 2015
Plastic surgery must be forbidden also according to the statement, and yet many many Jews have Zolastic work done. Hypocritical!
Anonymous
ohio
March 13, 2015
Mistakes You're Making
If Torah says don't get tattooed, the reason to refrain is because G-d said so. Health and wellness is not the issue. It's about allegiance to G-d. Either you can do what He says or not. Same with the way a beard is worn, or a garment of wool and linen is not worn, or boiling the kid in the mother's milk is forbidden. Just.. don't.. do it. Period.

Now whether Torah expressly forbids tattoos has been a question for a long time. I personally believe tattoos are forbidden. If you personally believe they are not forbidden, merely say so and take your chances. I cannot go wrong refraining from tattoos. This attitude that we ought not judge is misleading. We are not judging, but we are presenting evidence through the Law. If the Law is not to your liking, that is your burden.

I think it is also a safe policy to keep those with tattoos out of the Jewish cemetery. But I am not the policymaker.
tommyz
NC
March 12, 2015
So, if God makes you ugly, you have to live with it, but if you get a disease he made a mistake?
Anonymous