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).

"Aaron said to them, 'Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives...'" (Exodus 32:2).

 "I decked you out in finery...I put a ring in your nose, and earrings in your ears..." (Ezekiel 16:11. See also Exodus 35:22, Numbers 31:50, Judges 8:24, Isaiah 3:21).

This is also well documented in rabbinic times: "...small girls may go out [on Shabbat] with threads or even chips in their ears" (Mishnah Shabbat 6:6).

It also appears that there may be references to male ear piercing in the Talmud as well. In a discussion in the Talmud regarding the wearing of jewelry on Shabbat, the Gemarah states: "A tailor must not go out with a needle stuck in his garment, nor a carpenter with a chip in his ear.…" Rashi refers to a custom in his day for men to wear earrings that were signs of their respective trades (Rashi on BT Shabbat 11b; he explains that it was the custom of tradesmen to wear signs of their trade in the form of earrings so that when they walked in the marketplace people would know their particular trade and could hire them).

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Rabbi Alan Lucas

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