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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 (146)
December 19, 2014
Commenter from the UK: "Circumsicion-one more undisputable example of complete Jewish hypocrisy"
The conclusion does not follow and is based on faulty reasoning and weak analytical skills on the part of the commentator.
See in NY Times: "Benefits of Circumcision Are Said to Outweigh Risks"
August 18, 2014
"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"
Circumsicion-one more undisputable example of complete Jewish hypocrisy
July 20, 2014
Daily, I am faced with looking at scores of people with tattoos in public, and honestly, all I see is a lost world who does not know Yah or understand Yah's instructions and His written word. Just recently, scientists have studied tattooed skin under an Atomic Force Microscope and they have discovered that tattoo pigment is made up entirely of nano-particles and the nano-particles are actually migrating to the lymph system and could possibly cause cancer and other health issues.

The most important lesson for our admonishment is found in the daily sacrifices and the Red Heifer... We are to repent and present ourselves daily as a living sacrifice . The only acceptable sacrifice is one that is "unblemished" (period) and therefore a tattooed body would not be accepted according to torah due to blemish. This pattern is very detailed and is repeated continually through out torah. The entire story is about being clean and unclean, acceptable or unacceptable. Pray for wisdom & understanding.
May 6, 2014
Henna vs Tatoo
The idea of a decorative application -- such as with "henna parties" -- is completely different from a Tattoo which pierces the skin, inserts a dye and is permanent ... often depicting an icon, or idol, which is explicit forbidden in any form.
A henna application is closer to lipstick and eyeshadow -- with limited exception, NOT a tattoo or tattooed on. But, if lipstick, lip-outline or eyeshadow, or eyeliner, were to be made permanent, they too would be forbidden as tattoos.
Placing an herb on your skin -- regardless of visibility or it being applied in a pattern, could not, in itself, be considered a tattoo. If it were, consider the use of iodine or similar substances -- clearly they mark the skin. But their purpose is to promote health and well-being ... which is also the traditional association with Henna.
In some Jewish traditions, the Henna (or time it takes to fade naturally) also marks the 'honeymoon' period in a new marriage.
April 29, 2014
Re: Henna
It might be worth your time to study how the Rabbis who received the Oral Tradition decided on certain questions .
As stated in General earlier the rules of forbidden tattoos are part and parcel of the laws of forbidden idol worship. They are discussed in the Talmud and the Rambam laws.
What is discussed is a variety of actions which in and of themselves appear to be "harmless' your Rabbi might declare forbidden based on his understanding of the motive and purpose of the questioner.
We are forbidden to inquire after the ways the ancient idol worshippers did a certain act. in as much as the Oral tradition in the Talmud and the Codes tells us what is forbidden and what is permitted.
We don't change the rules to allow a certain act or not, but we see if an act is allowed under the structure of the Oral Tradition.
David Aharon Lindzon [Lindsay]
Toronto, ON Canada
April 29, 2014
Correct. Some sephardi women have "henna parties", especially on the night before a wedding. It is an opportunity for the women of the two families to get together, mix, mingle, and join together in supporting the bride. The bride has her henna applied after using the mikvah.
Sarah Masha
W Bloomfield, MI, USA
April 29, 2014
women in covenent
Anonymous San Francisco, you asked:
How does He recognize female Jews?
Contract isn't with them, so unimportant. Regardless of the Hasidim insistence, note GENESIS only tells the men ... cares little for the mother's. The only exceptions, pointed out in book, "Genesis of Genesis", are Sarah and Miriam ... and only Sarah conforms to the pattern of giving full age data ... no other woman is worthy of having her age information disclosed.
Aside from females being agents of getting thing going and changing ... I can't think of and deals there might be with them. Of course, if they are truly the only way to qualify as Hebrew, than their importance exceeds all else.

Oh, Samantha Leon, if not permanent, than it could qualify as dirt and simply need to be washed away as soon as possible ... after completing the function which brought it about.
April 29, 2014
what about Henna? Henna isn't even permanent, so personally, I don't think it should count.
Samantha Leon
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.
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