Body Piercing in Jewish Law

Jewish law does not prohibit it, but Jewish theology and ethics raise serious questions about what statements we make with body piercing.

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This responsum (a formal response by a rabbi to a question about proper Jewish practice) by a contemporary Conservative rabbi reviews relevant precedents and arrives at a conclusion very much like those reached by Reform and Orthodox authorities as well. One additional point raised by others is that body piercing is often desired by young people whose parents object, making it a possible violation of the precept to honor one’s parents. The practical question posed to Rabbi Lucas has three parts: Is body piercing (nose, navel, etc.) permitted? Would having a piercing prevent a person from taking part in synagogue rituals? Would it preclude burial in a Jewish cemetery? Reprinted with permission of the Rabbinical Assembly.

The issue of body piercing is presenting no small challenge to many a contemporary parent. For what has long been an issue of only ear piercing and limited to women, has now been extended to men and to almost every imaginable part of the body capable of being pierced.

body piercing in jewish lawWhile many of us may not understand why anyone would want to pierce some of the parts of the body, the question before us asks if such acts render one unfit for ritual inclusion or burial.

Body Piercing in Bible and Talmud

Ear piercing is mentioned in the Bible in several contexts. The most familiar refers to a Hebrew slave who was to be freed in the seventh year of servitude but declares his love for his master and refuses to go free: “…his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life” (Exodus 21:6).

There is some disagreement in the Gemarah (Babylonian Talmud [BT], Kiddushin 21b) as to how permanent this piercing of the slave’s ear was supposed to be. But our piercing is clearly of a non-permanent nature and its intent is purely decorative. This type of piercing was also known in the Bible:

“I inquired of her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’…And I put the ring on her nose and the bands on her arm” (Genesis 24:47).

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Alan B. Lucas is Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Roslyn Heights, New York.

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