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Why Does Judaism Forbid Tattoos?

Why Does Judaism Forbid Tattoos?


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.

See Rashi on the Talmud, Makkot 21a.
See Siftei Cohen to Leviticus 19:28; Rashi to Deuteronomy 14:1; Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 11:41.
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11.
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 (172)
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."
Brooklyn NY
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?
Yehuda Shurpin for
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.
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.
Sarah Masha
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.
Yehuda Shurpin for
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?
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.
Sarah Masha
W Bloomfiled, MI USA
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? :(
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?
Sarah Masha
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. :(