Author Archives: Rabbi Alan Lucas

Rabbi Alan Lucas

About Rabbi Alan Lucas

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

Body Piercing in Jewish Law

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).

Tattooing in Jewish Law

Reprinted with permission of the Rabbinical Assembly.

The prohibition of tattooing is found in the Torah: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28).

It is the second part of this verse from which we derive the general prohibition against tattooing. From the outset there is disagreement about what precisely makes tattooing a prohibited act. The anonymous author of a mishnah [an individual statement in the compilation known as the Mishnah] states that it is the lasting and permanent nature of tattooing which makes it a culpable act: “If a man wrote [on his skin] pricked-in writing, he is not culpable unless he writes it and pricks it in with ink or eye-paint or anything that leaves a lasting mark” (Mishnah Makkot 3:6).tattoo

But Rabbi Simeon ben Judah disagrees and says that it is the inclusion of God’s name which makes it a culpable act: “Rabbi Simeon ben Judah says in the name of Rabbi Simeon: He is not culpable unless he writes there the name [of a god], for it is written, ‘Or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord'” (ibid.).

The Gemarah [i.e., the Babylonian Talmud (BT)] goes on to debate whether it is the inclusion of God’s name or a pagan deity that makes it a culpable act.

Maimonides clearly sees the origin of this prohibition as an act of idolatry. He includes it in his section concerning idolatry and then explicitly states: “This was a custom among the pagans who marked themselves for idolatry‚Ķ.” But, [Maimonides] concludes that regardless of intent, the act of tattooing is prohibited (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11).

Biblical Israelites May Have Had Tattoos

Professor Aaron Demsky of Bar-Ilan University, in an article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (“Writing”), goes even further to suggest that non-idolatrous tattooing may have been permitted in biblical times. He cites the following biblical references: “One shall say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’ and another shall use the name of Jacob, and another shall mark his arm ‘of the Lord’ and adopt the name of Israel” (Isaiah 44:5), “See, I have engraved You on the palms of my hands‚Ķ” (Isaiah 49:16), and ” …is a sign on every man’s hand that all men may know His doings” (Job 37:7).