In our contemporary minds, we often associate piercings with tattoos, and we may wonder if they are equally forbidden. Indeed, Scripture clearly forbids all tattoos (aside from those made for medical purposes, such as to guide a surgeon): “You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves.”1

Biblical Precedent

No such prohibition exists, however, in regards to piercing. In fact, the Torah tells us that Eliezer presented Rebbeca with a nezem (either a nose ring or earring)2 as a gift, and that Aaron instructed the men to bring their wives’ earrings for the golden calf,3 indicating that they were commonly worn by our ancestors.

Moreover, Jewish Law discusses the permissibility of wearing both nose rings and earrings while out on Shabbat, and whether there is reason to fear that it may lead one to transgress the law against carrying in the public domain on the sacred day of rest.4

But why is piercing allowed? Shouldn’t it be forbidden under the general ban on self-harm?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe addresses this issue and concludes that it is not considered harm since the piercing has a practical long-term function—allowing the woman to painlessly and easily wear her ring for many years to come.5 Thus, as long as piercings are not disfiguring or demeaning, they are allowed.6

“Gentile” Piercings

There is, however, an important caveat: the Torah enjoins us not to follow the ways of the gentiles.7

The parameters of this mitzvah can be fuzzy and evolve according to societal norms. We read in the Code of Jewish Law that it can include things like cutting hair or wearing clothes in ways that are common among non-Jews.8

However, not all clothing worn by non-Jews is forbidden. For example, just because non-Jewish construction workers wear yellow vests doesn’t mean Jewish construction workers should not also wear them. This is a useful wardrobe choice, which Jews should surely adopt. The same goes for other uniforms, which help us identify professionals and service providers, even though their originators were non-Jewish.

On the other hand, if a specific cut, color, or fabric choice is common among gentiles and reflects a certain idolatrous or licentious element of society, this would be forbidden. The example given is wearing red, which was favored by women whose moral standards were not quite up to snuff.9

Back to piercings: Some piercings have no non-Jewish connotations and are OK. This surely includes a simple piercing on each ear (for a woman) and may also include other piercings, depending on the specifics of a given time and place.

On the other hand, it seems quite clear that other piercings are perceived as non-Jewish and are reflective of a certain rebellious culture, and they are certainly forbidden, as are piercings that are disfiguring or otherwise harmful.

If you are considering getting a piercing and are not sure if it’s OK, consult with your community rabbi, who would be best positioned to advise you on how these laws apply in your locale.