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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 (138)
March 20, 2014
To Anonymous in San Fran on tricking G-d.
I apologize if this offends anyone. The Rules for Conversion answer your Question clearly.... also if you just studied the text of the first 5 books of the bible you'll realize that G-d cannot be tricked or fooled. and look at the some of the prophets and you'll understand ...

To get into heaven, go fly in an airplane.[pun intended] .

To get into Olam Haba [the next world ] we talk about "your peoples [Jews and Gentiles] shall all be righteous. In other words doing right deeds [7 Noahide Laws] and 606 more if you become or are Jewish. Jewish women are to observe the laws that apply to them. You will note 613 laws are specified to cover all of the human experience in the nation of israel. For example, you cannot be a priest unless your father was a direct descendent of Aharon the first high priest... the biblical record has a whole portion on a challenge to this rule that ended in a catastrophe for Korach and 250 men who died in an unusual prove the point.

There is an enormous difference between those who talk about 'getting into heaven' and those who talk about Tikun Olam - bringing this world up to G-dly Standards and bringing his Presence down into this world. everyone else is focusing on how to get into heaven .. We Jews are focusing on how to make this world better in accordance with G-d's will.. this is why you will a general rule about Tattoos on one hand and bris milah [circumcision.] on the other.
There are other exceptions as well Some are discussed in detail in the Talmud and Maimonides and the codes of Jewish Law.
as we go through the experiences of life we find a way to harmonize our thoughts and actions with the Torah
David Aharon Lindzon [Lindsay]
Toronto, ON Canada
March 20, 2014
Anonymous -- Trick! Really?
Anonymous seems to feel a deity can be tricked, and misunderstands the nature of the circumcision.
The circumcision is a contract (covenant). Can you easily "trick" someone into believing they have entered into a contract with you?
Can it be easy to do with someone who is all-wise and all-knowing?
Funny that: "How does He recognize female Jews?" There really isn't a structure for the females. And, even though one group does demand that Jewishness is passed via the female, there is not real biblical basis for that assertion -- plus a sizable portion of post Exodus females were clearly NOT Jewish... Based on the way genealogies are recorded in Genesis etc, the female is irrelevant -- it's all in the covenant... (well, female is highly relevant, but in a context not relevant to this context) You might check the book "Genesis of Genesis" for the only unique female in the genealogies.
March 20, 2014
So, then, any male could trick G-d into thinking they're a Jew (and presumably get into Heaven) by getting circumcised?

How does He recognize female Jews?
San Francisco
March 18, 2014
Bris Milah or circumcision for males of the Jewish faith is specifically a commandment by G-d to distinguish us from all other peoples. As such it overides the negative commandment not to tattoo oneself... the writer is aware that in ancient times the people used tattoos as a sign of allegiance to a particular idol. These details are covered in the Talmud and the Laws. Without studying the reasons we can also see in many places where tattoos are used to induct the convert into, l'havdil, to make a distinction, Satanism today. Note that if it is part of a Medical procedure such as heart surgery or appendicitus, to save a life, one is not only allowed, but it is a MITZVAH [commandment] to do so.
David Aharon Lindzon [Lindsay]
Toronto, ON Canada
March 17, 2014
Isn't circumcision the same as tattoos or piercings?
If, "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."
Then isn't circumcision also mutilation of G-d's perfect creation?
San Francisco, CA
November 21, 2013
Sarah Masha
Completely untrimmed peyos is impractical -- if we think in terms of records for "longest Beard" and "longest Hair" ... the untrimmed peyos would, eventually, extend to the ankles. Trimmed with a scissors would be acceptable and does not involve the possibility of blood commonly associated straight razors.

Avram clearly was circumcised -- but we have the order of the act. the circumstance indicate Ismael would have been the first; we know the covenant only begins with Isaac's circumcision. But when you say, "neither Avraham nor the members of his household were Egyptian," you forget about Hagar the Egyptian maid to Sara -- Ismael's mother, who was given to Avram by the Pharaoh.
As for circumcision, the earliest record is from Egypt, circa 2400bce (or circa Hebrew year 1362) and mentions the use of topical antiseptic for the adult procedure. The event involving Avram & Ismael's circumcision is HY2049 (c.1713bce) -- 350 years after Saqqara bas-relief depiction.
November 21, 2013
My late Grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Levy, was educated at Jews College in London. After doing a stint in Brisbane he was transferred to Port Elizabeth (South Africa) where he was the Rabbi for 42 years. An anti-semitic group, known as "The Grey Shirts" broke into his shul one night and desicrated a number of prayer books.
My grandfather took them to the then "High Court" in Grahamstown (there was no high court in Port Elizabeth in those days). The judge found "The Grey Shirts" guilty of desicrating Holy Documents and warned them that any future acts of anti-semitism (of any kind) would result in imprisonment.
Jonathan Levy
November 19, 2013
Bill, Maine
For the haircutting, I was referring to completely untrimmed peyos. I wasn't clear about that. I meant that it would be hygienically safe to trim them and any other hair, so keeping them long is not for biological safety.

Tradition is that Avram circumcised himself first, and then the rest of the household. While going first fits with what we know of Avraham's willingness to do what ever G-d told him, the physical ability to do it properly, and then the rest of the household does defy usual credible thought. But this is Avraham, a tzadik, beyond usual limits. In any case neither Avraham nor the members of his household were Egyptian. In fact Yosef uses the fact that he is circumcised as proof that he is who he claims to be, presumably because the Egyptian men were not. So circumcision was not an Egyptian thing.
Sarah Masha
November 18, 2013
Sarah Masha - haircutting
Within the Hebrew tradition, documented in scripture, a Nazerite (such as Sampson) takes an oath, which applies for a stated time period, which could involve not cutting the hair and foregoing various things.
"Not permit cutting the hair at all" is a different thing -- an external imposition (cultural or otherwise) which has nothing to do with the risks associated with a razor, and the prohibitions related to contact with, or consumption of, blood. We need to remember we are dealing with laws set down 3,000 years ago -- and as recently as the invention of the "safety razor", nicks and cuts were a serious problem related to razor usage. Every minor cut meant touching/stopping the flow of blood, and the use of scarce water to wash. In many cultures, even warriors didn't shave (until it was realized that some combat styles made your soldier's beard an opponents weapon -- then warriors shaved, civilians didn't).
November 18, 2013
Sarah Masha
Sarah, it's a matter of priority. As cited elsewhere, the procedure on an adult is debilitating and the order of occurrence puts Ishmael first: "17;23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them"

On a practical basis, Abram had to be last but "26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day."
But this kinda implies someone else was doing the procedure: "27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him."
The Covenant then kicks in with Isaac, who has yet to be conceived.
Keep in mind that circumcision was an established Egyptian procedure and Hebrew tradition states the woman educates the man -- so the Egyptian woman probably introduced the actual practice when her son came of age.
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