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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.

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 member of the Ask the Rabbi team.
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Discussion (156)
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
March 17, 2015
Plastic surgery is a complex issue, and is discussed at length by halachic authorities.

See here for further details:
Shaul Wolf
March 16, 2015
Plastic surgery must be forbidden also according to the statement, and yet many many Jews have Zolastic work done. Hypocritical!
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.
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?
March 12, 2015
So, plastic surgery would also be forbidden?
March 11, 2015
Jan, The simplest guideline is that: If it intentionally causes blood (for no medical reason - circumcision is medical), or introduces any contaminate into the skin, it is forbidden.
The alternative rule: if pagans practiced it as a part of their religion in recognition of their deity, it is forbidden. (piercings, tattoos, etc had both a religious connotation and introduced foreign infection causing substances into the skin)
If you set aside the religious elements, you'll see that most of the laws are actually related to health -- in the case of blood, they recognized it as something we would call a bio-hazard.
Circumcision is related to multiple male health issues which develop with age, plus cuts STD transmission in half. The 8th day is the earliest time they could be sure the clotting factor had properly developed (Dr's/journals will tell you birth to seven days for clotting factor to be established) any cuts prior to that might cause uncontrolled bleeding and death.
March 11, 2015
tattoos only?
hi. does only tatoos are attached to this prohibition or piercings, collaring (like in bdsm do) are too?
January 1, 2015
Isaac Brooklyn NY
Not actually a contradiction when discussing the heath laws while stating: "...when nothing was known of the world involving bacteria and virus."

the fact they did not know the mechanism inside the 'Black Box' did not stop them from learning input produces output realities. They made associations between behavior and results -- dirty was related to disease, blood was related to transmission of disease. the answer: wash or, where possible, avoid contact.
In the 2011 book, "Grandpa Was A Deity: How a Tribal Assertion Created Modern Culture", yDNA shows that the Levites (as Josephus asserted of the Hebrews 1900 years ago) came from India and spread around the Old World (possibly into the New) both gathering and spreading information and knowledge.
Tattoos involved blood and blood spread illness. They also involved inserting 'dirty' into the skin, where it could not be washed away.
You're references are relatively recent history. In that context, Christians went through a period where
December 19, 2014
shaggy uk -worng
shaggy, you really need to read the bible and think about the actual laws being discussed. (Wisdom, knowledge, & understanding are mandated three times)
Most of the laws deal with Health & Hygiene in an age when nothing was known of the world involving bacteria and virus ... yet they nailed things which are standard practice today.
Modern Tattoos are governed by health laws -- including those related to needles and the transmission of disease by blood. Blood is a bio-hazard, and contact with it is forbidden, or requires immediate washing.
Circumcision prevents "strangulation" which affects a significant portion of the male population; it also reduces transmission of std's; it is also a cleanliness issue for some classes of individuals who generally have other cleanliness issues, circumcision prevents non-std infection transmittable to women, (even when not transmitted, it can cause problems most guys would prefer not to have.
It's about health.
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