Why Does Judaism Prohibit Tattoos?

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Dear Jew in the City,

I am 17 years of age and like some teens, I currently have an interest in tattoos. I know under Jewish law it is forbidden to get one, but how did this come to be and why?

Thanks,

Katie

Dear Katie:

Thank you for your question. Tattooing is specifically prohibited by the Torah (Leviticus 19:28), so the reason, ultimately, is because G-d said so. Our job is to try to understand the underlying rationale and the lessons we can derive from this mitzvah.

My understanding of this mitzvah is that it is based on the idea that we are not our bodies. We are our souls; our bodies are just vehicles that G-d gave us to get around. And, just like when you borrow a car, you have to take care of the loaner vehicle.

When you borrow a car, you fill the tires, change the oil, fill up the tank. Maybe the car gets a ding here and there, but that’s normal wear and tear. You don’t give the car back and tell the owner, “Thanks for the use of your car – I had flames painted on it!”

Similarly, we have to take care of our bodies with proper diet and exercise. Sometimes parts of us get damaged and need work or even replacement. But that’s no excuse to take bodies that are ultimately not ours and to mark them up with graffiti.

As popular as tattooing is in our society, there’s still plenty of tattoo regret. Tattoo removal is a big business. It’s expensive and painful and it never looks the same as a never-tattooed patch. Also, there isn’t an adult who doesn’t look back at pictures from their youth and think, “What was I thinking?” If our judgment regarding fashion and hairstyles seems dubious 20 years later, why should our judgment when it comes to skin art be any better?

There is a persistent myth that a Jew with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery. This is completely untrue but it underscores how completely taboo tattooing is in traditional Jewish culture. One can easily start (or resume) keeping Shabbos or kosher, but a tattoo is pretty much forever.

Please feel free to get back to me with any questions you may have.

Sincerely yours,
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

 

Jack Abramowitz is the JITC Educational Correspondent, the editor of OU Torah, and the author of five books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion.

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz About Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of five books including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion.

Comments

  1. So you CAN be buried in a Jewish cemetery even with a tattoo? I’ve been wondering since my parents told me no, and even on popular shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, they were not allowed to bury the mom because she had gotten a tattoo, and they had to put her in the “Special Section” (By they way, that is the name of the episode. VERY funny, you should check it out if you haven’t already seen it!)

    I have thought about it tho since so many teens and twenties have tattoos, it would be a real problem in the future if they couldn’t be buried in a Jewish Cemetery.

    • Rafi Hecht says:

      If that were the case imagine all those holocaust survivors with numbers on their arms, even though that was forcibly put on. Similarly, what about a Baal Tshuvah covered with tattoos?

      The main reason for no tattoos is because we’re not to emulate the other nations. The rest is very nice fluff that touches on this concept.

  2. Sam Klein says:

    I am a Baal Tshuva and I have tattoos on both of my arms. They are covered when I wear a short sleeve shirt. I feel very self conscious when I go to the Mikva A friend of mine who is also a Baal Teshuva with tattoos ,who is now a Rabbi in Crown Heights, says they remind him of where he came from. My problem is I don’t want to be reminded where I came from, as I was in a motorcycle club for 13 years and I will continue to do Teshuva for the rest of my life for some of the things I did.
    I wish I didn’t have the tattoos I went for laser treatment for removal but it didn’t do very much and it was expensive. I have been told by a dermatologist that technologies are improving. My only hope is that by the time it’s time for my soul to go up and my body to return to the earth that I will be able to have them removed.

    • Sam I know it’s uncomfortable but realize that Hashem appreciates how far you’ve come. This beautiful poem from Yossi Huttler’s book God’s Optimism might be able to help you and others in your situation.

      Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah

      Sometimes you see them
      in the dressing area
      of the ritual bath,
      young bearded men unbuttoning
      their white shirts,
      slipping out of their black trousers,
      until, standing entirely naked,
      they are betrayed by the tattoos
      of their past life:
      a ring of fire climbing up a leg,
      an eagle whose feathery wing span
      spreads the width of the chest,
      or worse, the scripted name of a woman
      other than one’s wife.

      Then, holding only a towel,
      they begin, once more, the walk
      past the others in the dressing room:
      the rabbi they will soon sit before
      in Talmud class,
      men with the last names
      of the first Chasidic families
      almost everyone,
      devout since birth.

      And with each step,
      they curse the poverty
      that keeps the dark ink
      etched in their skin,

      until, finally, they descend the stairs
      of the purifying water,
      and, beneath the translucent liquid,
      appear, once again,
      like the next man,

      who, in all this days,
      has probably never made a sacrifice
      as endearing to God.

      From God’s Optimism

  3. From what I understand, years ago, getting tattoos (or marking one’s skin in other ways) was a common practice of idol worshippers. As Jews we do not wish to emulate these practices not just because it is common of the other nations, but because it specifically marks someone as an idol worshipper.

    • PJ, You took the comment right out of my head. That’s what I learned was the reason that the Torah forbids tattoos, among other practices that were common with idol worshippers.

  4. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    Suzanne: that is correct. (Of course, learning that they can, indeed, be buried in a Jewish cemetery should not have people rushing out to get tattooed! The myth evolved because the prohibition is taken so seriously.)

    Rafi: The Sefer HaChinuch says along those lines but such is not the only approach. Remember, except in a few rare cases, the reasons for mitzvos are unstated; any reasons we attribute to them are our own understandings. (One opinion in the Talmud is against trying to speculate reasons for mitzvos at all but such is not the final word on the matter since the Rambam, the Sefer HaChinuch, and we all try to understand the principles underlying the mitzvos.)

  5. Great article, but I’ve always wondered why we ARE allowed to pierce our ears. What about boys/men piercing ears? (is it beged isha? So many Israeli boys have them.) And what is the view on body piercing in general? Thank you in advance!

    • Donna, Unfortunately I don’t have sources to back this up, but I remember learning that we are allowed to have piercings because they are not permanent. I was told if left alone they would eventually close up. Again I’m really not sure how accurate this answer is, but it is the one that was given to me.

      • Sarah Rivka :) says:

        I used to wear earring but I stopped for a long period. My holes did eventually close to the point where I can’t wear earrings anymore but I can still tell where the holes used to be.

    • I know this is a little late, but the reason women can pierce their ears and noses is because our foremothers (mainly Rebecca) did it and we learn that G-d permits it for women and not men in the sin of the Golden Calf. The men gave their earrings and jewelry and the women didn’t so they can still wear the jewelry. Also before G-d showed Chava to Adam G-d adorned her with 24 ornaments including earrings. Another example is that when they asked for donations for building the temple the women kept their jewelry and mirrors so that they could make themselves beautiful.

      The specific reason that we are not allowed to tattoo is that the idolaters would tattoo their temples (foreheads) in mourning and we are not allowed to do that because it is idolatry. I have heard opinions from Orthodox Rabbis that a tattoo in another place is okay but not advisable.

      • Mike the Gentile says:

        Sorry to interrupt but I was wondering why you say G-d instead of God. Are you ashamed of your belief?

        • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

          I’m not sure how you drew that conclusion but I can see how the practice might appear strange. Orthodox Jews are very careful not to take the Name of G-d in vain. We only pronounce His Name (in Hebrew) in prayer; in conversation, we use a substitute such as “Hashem” (literally, “the Name”). English names like Lord, God, Almighty, etc. are not actual Names of G-d but many people voluntarily spell them “G-d,” “L-rd,” “Al-mighty,” etc. as a sign of respect. It’s not obligatory (I just wrote “God” above – and here again!), it’s just a reminder to treat names referring to G-d with a degree of awe, even in other languages.

  6. I had a bilateral mastectomy going to be 12 years. When we were discussing reconstruction, I met with my Rav. He told me the tattooing of the areoleas would be permissible because it would be considered medical.

  7. Jen Safier says:

    What about cosmetic surgery? If we are to return our bodies as they were given to us, then is cosmetic surgery forbidden?

  8. Anonymous says:

    Great response, but way too short. There is a lot more to the underlying reasons of tattoos I could literally write a book on it.

  9. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    Donna: We are not allowed to self-mutilate (Deut. 14:1 – http://www.ou.org/torah/article/mitzvah467). We are allowed to pierce soft cartilage but not flesh, so ears are okay but nipples, lips, tongues, etc. are not. The outside of the nose is not a problem based on this verse but it may be a problem based on Lev. 20:23, the prohibition against copying other nations’ ways (http://www.ou.org/torah/article/mitzvah262 – that would depend more on whether or not doing so is accepted in one’s community).

    Shari: You are correct!

    • Doesn’t the Torah talk about one of our foremothers (Rivka, I think) having a “Nezem Zahav”, which is usually translated as a gold nose-ring?

  10. Old School/New School Mom says:

    So Jews with tattoos can be buried in a Jewish cemetery?

  11. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    Jen: Cosmetic surgery is a a complicated area with a lot of things to consider. It really can raise a person’s self-esteem (which is good for mental health and a point in its favor) but all surgery involves an element of risk, which perhaps should not be undertaken unnecessarily. Each case should be consulted with one’s doctor and rabbi individually.

    AC: The women at the time of the Exodus also had nose rings. As I said, that is not *inherently* prohibited but it may be *contextually* prohibited if it is not accepted among Jews in a given time and place. Therefore, you may see it occasionally nowadays in more modern communities but not in more traditional communities.

  12. Tracy Walter says:

    I understand what you are saying Rabbi Jack, I would never ruin the body that God has given me, I’m Christian and I think that not ruining your God-given body is a good idea!

  13. Taboo against tatoos: the main reason tatoos are considered turning away from our harmony with the Divine is that in Genesis it is made clear that our form is divinely inspired; and to intentionally alter it permanently is to be ignorant of sacredness of that inspiration and our immediate relationship to the Divine. To ‘mark oneself up” is to act counter to these understandings. Secondarily, this ‘marking oneself up’ is to treat our bodies as things, when they are really sacred vessels for our spirit in this earthly incarnation. Judaism teaches us that we have a direct and very special connection to the Divine and and are not things. Looking at the numerology and the other amazing factors that make this miraculous human form, we can see this sacredness. To ‘mark oneself up’ is to add mundane and crude representations to what is already a far, far, far greater work of beauty and function.

  14. This is very interesting. I got my ears pierced a few years ago for business reasons and am glad to know about being buried in a Jewish cemetery, something I forgot to ask my rabbi.

  15. I wonder- say u had an iphone with a cover. The object of value is the iphone. The cover is to protect it. It doesnt matter what the cover looks like, so long as it does its job….. Thoughts, anyone?

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Well, I think according to Rabbi Abramowitz’s analogy, even if the cover is less valuable, it still doesn’t belong to you. Therefore you still need to return it to the owner as close to the original as possible.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      It’s a great metaphor except for one thing: the Torah says not to get tattoos. It’s as if the iPhone came with a manual saying, “Do not put this product in any cover except the one provided by the manufacturer.” We wouldn’t want to do anything that would risk voiding our warranty!

  16. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    Lol. Allison and I both answered that one at once! :-D

  17. yeshivaguy101 says:

    I once heard a basketball player comment on why he had no tattoos he said ” well did you ever see a bumper sticker on a maserati”…btw jitc your awesome thank for all your great work

  18. I have to say that I find this a little bit sad. I have several tattoos and each of them has very special meaning to me. Some of them are to represent a challenge I overcame and others are to honor people that I loved and lost and I will never regret any of them. I also have several scars from surgeries that I went through during serious illness I had to deal with. Because of those scars, my body does not look the way it did when I was born, it has already been permanently altered by no choice of my own but my tattoos are permanent markings that I have chosen, which is incredibly empowering. My scars represent fear and loss, while my tattoos represent strength, courage and hope. I admit that I am not a religious person at all, but I’d like to believe that G-D is PROUD of the challenges I’ve overcome and wants me to live my life to the fullest and cares MUCH more about the things I DO with my body (the acts of kindness, for example) than he/she does about how I decorate it. I’d hate to think that G-D is more concerned with how people look than the kind of people that they are.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      To observant Jews, tattoos aren’t about how we look so much as they’re about doing what G-d said, and He said, “Don’t do that.” Besides, having a tattoo and what kind of person one is are not mutually exclusive. Is it better to keep Shabbos or kosher? We’re supposed to do both! Similarly, one doesn’t have to choose between not having tattoos and being a good person – one can follow both!

      I totally get the idea of tattoos to celebrate overcoming adversity – I have (non-religious) friends who have done the same thing. But for observant Jews, that would be like celebrating by having a cheeseburger! We don’t thank G-d for His goodness by violating one of His rules! (I’m not judging you or anybody else, I’m just explaining why we do things the way we do.)

      Tattoos or not, I’m confident that G-d IS proud of your accomplishments! The way observant Jews celebrate such things is with what’s called a seudas hoda’ah (meal of thanksgiving), where we invite our friends to join us in thanking Him. We like to share such milestones with those close to us. One can also do that and be a good person. (Again, I’m not judging your life choices, I’m just explaining ours.)

  19. Jeremy Sher says:

    This is a great discussion, thank you! I would offer that the text of the Torah is not entirely clear; from a critical perspective it seems to be talking about a particular kind of tattoo, which was done for idolatrous reasons. From a halakhic perspective, unless I’m mistaken we do not use Torah without the Oral Law, and notwithstanding that the Rabbis themselves disagree on what the Torah text means (Makkot 21) the majority opinion of the Tannaim is that any tattooing (incision + ink) is prohibited. Best I can tell, later decisors have further clarified and underscored this prohibition. I’d love any further references if R. Abromowitz or anyone else has any. In particular, I’d love to know who first (or second or third) took the not-so-clear text of the Mishnah and Gemara at Makkot 21 and decided a clear, blanket prohibitive halakhah without reference to tattoo content or intent, except for medical and involuntary tattoos.

    R. Abromowitz, I heard that there are some opinions saying that the tattoo artist is the halakhically culpable party, *not* the one getting the tattoo. It would seem that under this opinion, hiring a non-Jewish tattoo artist would be halakhically similar to a Shabbos goy, not my practice but one that exists. What would be your take on that, is that opinion one you would agree with? I apologize, I cannot remember where I heard this.

    So if R. Abromowitz hadn’t said, I would have thought that “G-d says so” would not actually be the reason to act within the halakhic framework, but rather, because the halakhah says so, which is to say, because human rabbis have said so. If we are committed to following halakhah, we know that for example the Rabbis could have only part of the answer (elu va-elu divrei Elokim Chayim) or that they could be flat-out wrong in terms of G-d’s own preference (e.g. Oven of Akhnai story; a lot of poskim have written essays of beautiful humility about their anxiety over this possibility — R. Moshe Feinstein comes to mind). However, right or wrong, G-d’s will or not, people are obligated to follow a posek once consulting one. So within the halakhic framework, I would not think the controlling consideration would be a personal questioning of G-d, nor a personal consultation of the Torah to determine what one personally feels the text means, but rather a consultation of established halakhic precedent which was decided by human beings.

    This is not an argument against following the halakhah, far be it from me to say that. People who commit to living an Orthodox lifestyle ought to follow the halakhah as it is received. One hopes, and I think, that the halakhah is at least mostly “right,” certainly close to G-d’s intent, and a good thing to follow for people who commit to Orthodox Judaism. I just think that, as with any halakhic decision, and certainly with the text we have on this issue, it’s not entirely clear to me that *G-d* said so. Very respectfully offered, thank you for this highly enlightening discussion.

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