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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 (166)
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
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? :(
Anonymous
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?
Sarah Masha
WB MI USA
baischabad.com
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. :(
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.
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?
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.