Tattoos, once considered off-limits for Jews, are becoming increasingly popular, for some as a form of rebellion, while for others as a prideful marker of Jewish identity. Tattooing and body art are classic forms of religious expression among people of some faiths, yet have been historically viewed unfavorably by the Jewish tradition.
As more young hip Jews make the choice to emblazon inky Jewish stars, Hebrew lettering, and kabbalistic imagery across their skin, it begs us to ask the question: What does Jewish tradition actually have to say about tattoos?
- The biblical verse, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28) is the foundational text upon which later Rabbinic scholars developed the prohibitions against tattooing. Rabbinic law clarifies the biblical statute and states that only tattoos of a permanent nature are considered impermissible.
- Maimonides, a leading 12th century scholar of Jewish law and thought, explains that the prohibition against tattoos originates as a Jewish response to paganism. Since it was common practice for ancient pagan worshippers to tattoo themselves with religious iconography and names of gods, Judaism prohibited tattoos entirely in order to disassociate from other religions.
- A later developed and commonly heard explanation for the prohibition against tattoos connects to the Jewish concept that all humans were created B’Tzelem Elokin (in the image of God). The mystical interpretation of this prohibition is that the human body is a holy vessel and a gift from God and as such, we are expected to care for our bodies and treat them preciously, which forbids certain actions including tattooing.
- It is a popular myth that a Jewish person who has a tattoo is not permitted to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Despite the prohibition, there is absolutely no legal justification to prevent a person with a tattoo from receiving a Jewish burial. Interestingly, tattoos are unique in the sense that evidence of the transgression remains on the body after death.
- In a post-Holocaust era it is important to clarify that the prohibition against tattoos applies only to cases of voluntary tattooing. The Shulchan Aruch (16th century book of codified Jewish law) explains that when a person is tattooed involuntarily or against his will, he is not accountable for the act. This statute is particularly relevant to many Jews who received number tattoos on their arms during the Holocaust.