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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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Isaac Brooklyn NY March 23, 2017

What necessities did tattoos serve when prohibition was first ruled? The generation of the exodus were accustomed to Egyptian rituals.
In ancient Egypt the majority of tattoos were found on women, indicating status.
Juxtaposition to Leviticus 19:28, in 19:29 "You shall not defile your daughter by making her a harlot,..."
Given that Egyptian women's status were indicted by a tattoo, this probably was done with a tattoo,
Also used tattoos for religion and as a form of Punishment.
Tattoos probably were also used in ancient medicine as part of treatment of the patient. Dr Daniel Fouquet, wrote on "medical tattooing" practices in Ancient Egypt, he describes the tattooed markings on the mummies found at the Deir el-Bahari site. He speculated that the tattoos and other scarifications (a prohibition also stated in the same verse) observed on the bodies may have served a medicinal or therapeutic purpose: "The examination of these scars, some white or blue, leaves no doubt they are not, in essence ornament, but an established treatment for certain conditions." Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org March 17, 2017

Re: Honoring Holocaust victims With regards to the question about honoring holocaust victims with a tattoo please see Honor a Holocaust Victim by Tattooing Her Number? Reply

Anonymous Florida March 17, 2017

Tattoos which are the numbers on the arms of death camp survivors, and are now being tattooed on their children or grandchildren ahonoring their parents should be exempt from any halacha. Reply

Sarah Masha WB MI USA via baischabad.com March 2, 2017

Anon in Hollywood The commandment is to not mark ourselves. No reason is given, it is straight out of the Torah, and makes as much intellectual sense as not eating shellfish, or pork. These are all commandments that don't make sense, we are just told to either do or not do certain things.

I don't know where the idea of tattooed people not being allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery started. It is wrong. There is space in Jewish cemeteries for every Jew, no matter how marked, no matter what they did or didn't do in life. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org March 2, 2017

Re: Anonymous from Hollywood I'm not sure what you mean when you say that the article does not explain why it is prohibted. The article starts off saying "Although some of the commentaries 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..." and then proceeds to offer some possible explanations, with the knowledge that these may very well not be the reason as it is a "decree" from heaven with the reason not revealed to us.

That said, Jewish burial is not the yardstick by which to measure how grave a prohibition is. Many burial societies and cemeteries have their own rules on whom they would bury, but that doesn't make it halachikly forbidden to bury such a person there. Jewish burial itself is a separate Mitzvah which cannot be disregarded lightly. Final judgment isn't burial, it's by G-d in heaven. Reply

Anonymous Hollywood February 25, 2017

It still doesn't explain what the reasoning for not getting a tattoo is. Yet there is no halacha against burying a yid in a Jewish cemetery with tattoos. If it's such a huge deal for a Jew more so a frum one to get a tattoo, why bury them in a Jewish cemetery? Reply

Sarah Masha W Bloomfiled, MI USA via baischabad.com February 13, 2017

anon from 12 feb Actually, I meant that based on the earlier comments by rabbis in this discussion, you do not need to do anything about the tattoos you already have.

I believe that if you chose to have any removal done that would be rewarded. Any time a person strives to do a mitzvah in a way that is above and beyond the minimum required there is reward commensurate with the effort. Having a tattoo removed by any method would be greatly rewarded. Reply

Anonymous via baischabad.com February 12, 2017

You mean to say I should somehow learn to tolerate laser tattoo fading rather than demand it be cut out entirely. What if it proves too unacceptable? :( Reply

Sarah Masha WB MI USA via baischabad.com February 7, 2017

Anon 7 Feb 2017 Yes, the law is written that you will not make a mark...
So receiving it is the sin, and therefore we can say that a person who did not know the law and then becomes aware of it may keep the tattoos he already has. Many choose not to, but that is an extra (painful) level.


I'm not sure of the penalty, but generally fines are used to make restitution to another person, the victim. Since this is a victimless crime a fine would probably not be imposed. How about we all concentrate on being better people and doing more mitzvot, in the future and let HaShem worry about the past which we cannot change or make restitution for? Reply

Anonymous February 7, 2017

What is the penalty? What is the penalty? Is this deserving of death? lashes? a fine maybe... You make it sound like receiving a tattoo is the actual sin, not the disgrace of carrying it afterwards. :( Reply

Anonymous April 29, 2016

Fundamentalist Christians follow the same Torah law. I was raised Fundamentalist Christian and was forbidden to get any tattoos or piercings for the exact reasons stated above, but also because it was part of being separate from the world system. I have no tattoos or piercings at age 58 and will die without them because The Almighty One frees us from paganism. The Most High liberates us from enslavement to anything but Himself. The commandments are not restrictions, they are protection from harm by One who even overprotects us for our benefit. King David repeats this many times. Reply

Anonymous 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? Reply

Simcha Bart for Chabad.org 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. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn 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) Reply

Marco Sassano 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 Reply

Dean Francis Escondido, California. 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. Reply

Shaul Wolf Chabad.org 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: Reply

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: Reply

Anonymous ohio March 16, 2015

Plastic surgery must be forbidden also according to the statement, and yet many many Jews have Zolastic work done. Hypocritical! Reply

tommyz NC 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. Reply

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