Forbidden Ink (Part 2)

20 Sep


OK, ladies and gents, stick with me this week. I’m up to my eyeballs in conversion project research and writing these days.

As such, today I am going to share some of what I have been researching and writing in my spare time, edited slightly for the purposes of this blog. A word of warning: I take a slightly more academic tone in this post than I do in most of my other posts to date.

Here goes, read on…

The act of permanently marking one’s skin in the form of a tattoo has been around for millennia and spans all corners of the globe. It is prevalent across human cultures. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, the Scythian Pazyryk people of the Altai Mountain region in Siberia, and scores more, are all believed by scholars to have engaged in the act of tattooing. As evidenced by their mummified bodies, artwork, writings and artifacts of tattooing instruments, the tattoos took the forms of dot and line patterns, figures, and images of nature.


In Judaism, tattoos are prohibited. As I mention in a previous post, Forbidden Ink (Part 1), the Torah does not mince words when it forbids Jews from getting tattoos. Leviticus 19:28 reads: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

Thus, of the 613 mitzvot, one of the 365 negative commandments is not to tattoo the body like the idolaters. For centuries rabbis have examined, hypothesized, rationalized, and disagreed about the commandment against tattoos, and to this day there is a considerable amount of modern responsa that addresses the issue of tattooing, especially as it relates to medical treatments or cosmetic surgery.

Have you ever read modern rabbinic responsa? I highly recommend it. A nerdy thing to admit, yes, but listen for a second. In it, rabbis tackle contemporary issues and weigh their acceptability (or unacceptability) today in light of Judaism’s traditional laws and teachings.

So. Freakin’. Fascinating.

The issue of tattoos illustrates well some common themes in Judaism: respect for tradition, the ability of the tradition to change and reform over time as contemporary society evolves, the importance of the human body as an extension of one’s soul and of God, and the importance and encouragement of self-expression.

To begin with, it is helpful to understand what the Jewish tradition, its sacred texts and rabbinic scholars, had to say about tattoos. As mentioned above, the Jewish tradition derives the prohibition on tattooing from the Torah.

The second part of the verse contains the ban on tattoos and the Torah does not explain the commandment any further than this. As such, rabbis have offered explanations for this law throughout the ages; each with their own nuanced reasoning, and at times disagreeing with each other’s conclusions.


What exactly makes a tattoo a prohibited act is disputed. The anonymous author of a Mishnah states that one is guilty of the offense of tattooing only if the tattoo is done with permanent ink:

“If a man wrote [on his skin] pricked-in writing [he is culpable]…but only if he writes it and pricks it in with ink…or anything that leaves a lasting mark” (Mishnah Makkot 3:6)

To this anonymous author, it is the permanent nature of a tattoo that makes it wrong. Rabbi Simeon ben Judah, however, disagrees, contending that one is not responsible for the transgression of tattooing unless

“he writes there the name [of a god], for it is written, ‘or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord” (Mishnah Makkot 3:6).

According to Rabbi Simeon it is not the permanent nature of the tattoo that makes it wrong, but rather the tattoo’s subject matter or specific inscription. That is, whether the tattoo itself includes the name of God. The Gemara, which is part of the Talmud, contains further debates about whether it is the inclusion of God’s name or the name of some pagan deity that makes a tattoo sinful:

“Said R. Aha the son of Raba to R. Ashi: [Does it mean, not] until he has actually inscribed the words, I am the Lord? — No, replied he, it means, as Bar Kappara taught, He is not liable [to a flogging] until he inscribed the name of some profane deity, as it is said: Nor put on you any written-imprint, I am the Lord, [that is,] ‘I am the Lord’ and no other” (See this).

Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon (Rambam) took the discussion a step further, focusing not on the permanent nature of the tattoo or its exact inscription, but on the fact that tattooing was an act of idol worship:

“This was a custom among the pagan who marked themselves for idolatry” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11).

Rambam ultimately concluded that regardless of its meaning or nature, the act of tattooing is outlawed in Judaism. Elsewhere in the responsa, the prohibition against tattooing is explored from a broader perspective, relating the act of tattooing to some of the central tenets of Judaism. (See Forbidden Ink Part 1 for an explanation of three ideas commentators typically reference–that we were created in God’s image, that tattoos are a form of idol worship, and that tattooing diminishes the importance of circumcision, which is a sign of the Jews’ covenant with God).

Contemporary scholars, too, have grappled with the issue of tattooing during Biblical times, suggesting that tattoos were in fact commonplace despite the commandment against it.

Aaron Demsky, professor of Biblical History at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, argues that non-idolatrous tattooing took place and was permitted during Biblical times. He cites the following examples from the Torah:

“One shall say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’ Another shall use the name of ‘Jacob,’ Another shall mark his arm ‘of the Lord’ And adopt the name of ‘Israel’ (Isaiah 44:5)

It should be noted that some editions of the Tanakh include a footnote for this verse. One such footnote is “it was customary to mark a slave with the owner’s name.”

Additional examples cited by Demsky include:

“See I have engraved you on the palms of My hands.” (Isaiah 49:16)

“Is as a sign on every man’s hand, That all men may know His doings” (Job 37:7)

Demsky would have us interpret these verses not metaphorically, but literally, implying that tattooing was permissible during Biblical times. Whether or not Demsky’s contention that some tattoos were allowed in Biblical times is accurate, the rabbis of the Rabbinic period ended up prohibiting all tattooing. And, with few notable exceptions, many rabbis of the modern era come down similarly on the commandment against tattooing.

Rabbinic responsa from the Conservative and Reform movements for the most part uphold the traditional prohibition against tattooing among members of the Jewish faith. (Orthodox Judaism, adhering the laws of the Torah, expressly prohibits tattooing).

Indeed, the Conservative movement’s official stance on the topic of tattooing, adopted by the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards (CJLS) in 1997,  is that:

“In our day, the prohibition against all forms of tattooing regardless of their intent, should be maintained…voluntary tattooing even if not done for idolatrous purposes expresses a negation of [a] fundamental Jewish perspective” (see this).

Jews today, the CJLS decided, ought to honor the central belief that we were created in God’s image and that our bodies are an extension of God, and therefore not ours alone. Ubiquitous as tattoos may be in secular society today, Jews should refrain from tattooing.

Referencing the inexcusable and horrific practice of the Nazis, who forcibly tattooed the arms of Jews, the CJLS does not consider these Jews to be responsible for the transgression. The culpability is on the Nazis (see this).

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinic organization, published a responsa on their website about tattooing and the Jewish tradition. While the responsa acknowledges tattoos today are perceived by many as a fashionable adornment or cosmetic accessory, and that tattoos are an important form of self-expression for those who get them, “in general, tattooing…conflict[s] with our most carefully-considered understanding of our Jewish tradition” (see this). The CCAR responsa elaborates on this point at length:

“As Jews… we ought to perceive the extensive physical alteration of the human body, when undertaken without medical justification, as chavalah, an act of destruction undertaken for no good and worthwhile purpose…Judaism requires that our bodies be treated with honor and respect…Tattooing, when not part of a legitimate medical procedure, [is] most difficult to reconcile with that emphasis…we should continue to teach that Judaism forbids [tattooing] as the negation of holiness, the pointless and unacceptable disfigurement of the human body” (see this).

Though Reform Judaism has been known to ease up on certain traditional practices and prohibitions in the spirit of modern relevance, the movement by and large remains steadfast in the opinion that voluntary tattooing for the sake of personal expression and decoration ought to be discouraged. The tradition’s long-established viewpoint is upheld by the formal rabbinic organization, and the concept of chavalah is invoked, giving credence to their judgment. Where the responsa condones tattoos is in cases of medical necessity.

When tattooing is a necessary part of a legitimate medical procedure, they are allowed, according to the CCAR. Take, for example a question submitted by Rabbi Bonnie Steinberg in Great Neck, New York to the CCAR and published as a responsa on the CCAR’s website:

“A congregant plans reconstructive breast surgery following a radical mastectomy. Her surgeon will tattoo an areola on the reconstructed breast. She wishes to know whether this would violate the traditional Jewish prohibition against tattooing. Is there a distinction to be drawn when the tattooing does not occur as a result of a medical procedure? What should be our response to the phenomenon of tattooing and body-piercing for the sake of adornment or self-expression?” (See this).

The responsa considers the tradition’s position against tattooing, and weighs the fact that cosmetic surgery is often frowned upon in Reform Judaism. In the abovementioned case, the CCAR regards the tattoo as a part of a regimen of medicine and as contributing to the woman’s complete healing. Tattooing in this situation is therefore allowed.

“[As] an element of reconstructive surgery in the wake of a mastectomy. As this is a legitimate medical procedure, there is no reason to prohibit the tattoo as an instance of ketovet ka`aka, a forbidden incision in the skin” (see this).

Looking at contemporary responsa from both Conservative and Reform Judaism, we can see that uniquely modern medical scenarios complicate what is oftentimes a clear-cut issue. That is, tattooing in non-medically necessary cases ought to be discouraged since tattooing is a transgression as defined in the Torah.

Of course, any discussion of tattoos almost immediately calls to mind a comparison to the practice of piercing (earlobes or other body parts) and of voluntary plastic surgery. Rabbinic responsa have addressed these practices as well.

The Talmudic debates about what makes tattooing a prohibitive act are mirrored in modern-day responsas surrounding piercings and plastic surgery.


The extent to which these two practices have become commonplace in American society and the extent to which the practices enhance one’s psychological wellbeing, or can be reasonably categorized as acts of legitimate beautification, are disputed.

We will begin with the case of piercing. Citing examples of surgical ear piercing in the Hebrew bible, a CCAR responsa from 1983 approves of the practice of piercing the earlobe: “piercing one’s ears for the sake of beautification would be permissible to Jewish women according to tradition” (see this).

Interestingly, this responsa refers to both the case of slaves with the cartilage of their ears permanently pierced as a sign of their slavery (as is mentioned in the Hebrew bible) and the well-known fact that the Talmud encourages women to beautify themselves to justify their verdict. Because ear piercing was clearly done in Biblical times and because the Talmud accepts female beautification, this responsa supports the modern practice of ear piercing.

Still, other responsa do not see the act of piercing the same way. While conceding that ear piercing is widespread in society and a customary form of bodily adornment, another CCAR lumps body-piercing in with tattooing as acts which violate the holiness of one’s body (see this):

“The physical alteration of the human form… through the piercing of its organs is an act of degradation rather than adornment, of disrespect rather than honor” (see this).

To reference Leviticus 19:28 again, voluntarily piercing the ears or other body parts is, arguably, a form of incising permanent marks or gashes into one’s flesh.


Indeed, medical professionals know that even pierced ears that have been allowed to close over a period of years leave lasting marks. An LA Times article from 2002 quotes Dr. Steven Weiss, chief of dermatologist at Decars-Sinai Medical Center: “Piercing does leave permanent marks on the skin.”

That there is a distinction made between the acceptability of ear piercings and the unacceptability of tattoos may ultimately have more to do with the differential value placed on each of these practices by the rabbis who wrote the responsa than the facts at hand. There are conflicting responsa written with regards to plastic surgery as well.

Reform rabbis have been asked on more than one occasion to determine whether or not plastic surgery that is purely for personal self-improvement is acceptable according to their reading of Jewish law.

In one case, a female congregant asks whether the breast enlargement surgery she is planning, as a means of pleasing her husband, is allowed. In another, a woman who seeks a facelift and rhinoplasty, wonders whether she should have the surgery.

These are two seemingly similar situations and questions with two surprisingly dissimilar rabbinic opinions. In the case of the former, the responding CCAR rabbis conclude that the woman should be dissuaded from breast augmentation surgery:

“Judaism…admonishes us to look below the surface, to concentrate upon the development of deeper and more lasting measurements of self-worth and satisfaction. The notion that purely cosmetic surgery is beneficial to mental health must as a general rule be resisted. We would therefore urge that rabbis advise against cosmetic surgery undertaken solely for the improvement of personal appearance” (see this).

In the latter case, the rabbis use a similar line of reasoning to arrive at the opposite conclusion. That is, they permit the woman’s desired facelift and rhinoplasty:

“It is clear from Jewish tradition that the right of a woman to beautify herself is one that is honored in Scripture and in Talmud…Since, therefore, the cosmetic purpose is an honored one and an important one, and since the operation is not likely to be a dangerous one, then the ambiguous law of Chovel against self-injury does not apply here, and this woman is not prohibited by Jewish law to undergo cosmetic surgery” (see this).

Piercing, plastic surgery and the general act of tattooing aside, what the responsa do not examine, or have yet to examine, is the modern-day phenomenon taking place among young Jews today. That is, to tattoo uniquely Jewish symbols on their bodies.

We’ll continue by exploring this practice in detail in part three of this series soon!

An early Shabbat Shalom! Have a good weekend.


{image credits: 1. Photo of Hebrew tattoo from: 2. Mummy tattoo image from: 3. Jews reading Mishnah image from: 4. Eyebrown piercing image from: 5. Ear piercing image from:}

9 Responses to “Forbidden Ink (Part 2)”

  1. Romie September 20, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    Fascinating, and an impressive piece of scholarship.

    There is one very significant point that you left out, namely that the victims of the Holocaust were all tattooed with identification numbers, and post-War that represented an additional explanation for the adverse reaction of Jews to the idea of tattooing as a fashion statement.


    • Convert Confidential September 22, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

      Thanks, Amy! I’ve got that article bookmarked in my project research folder. Super interesting. I’ll be going into this in Part 3 and/or 4 of this series.

  2. pioneerartblog May 2, 2014 at 2:24 am #

    Very well written. Insightful. I’ve read many of the source texts you’ve mentioned above… it’s especially nice to see talmud juxtaposed against a contemporary rhetoric that is both scholarly and well-thought-out. Thank you.

  3. Emma March 25, 2015 at 9:41 am #

    What kind of project did you have to complete?? Was this mandatory?


  1. Study Session: Beit Din 101 | Convert Confidential - October 4, 2013

    […] Forbidden Ink (Part 1) and Forbidden Ink (Part 2) There’s more to come on this magnum opus, which I will be finalizing this […]

  2. Forbidden Ink (Part 3) | Convert Confidential - October 10, 2013

    […] I will be sharing the third (and final) piece in my series on tattoos and Judaism. As with Forbidden Ink (Part 2), please bear with the academic tone of this post once more. Please read […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: