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Jewish Death Practices:
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Tattooing and Body Piercing
A Responsum from the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards
The following is a decision of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards written by Rabbi Alan B. Lucas. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards operates as a committee of the Rabbinical Assembly to respond to halakhic issues for the Conservative movement. Its members are appointed by the Rabbinical Assembly, JTS and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.1
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 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.2
But Rabbi Simeon b. Judah disagrees and says that it is the inclusion of God's name which makes it a culpable act:
Rabbi Simeon b. 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."3
The Gemarah goes on to debate whether it is the inclusion of God's name or a pagan deity that makes it a culpable act.
The Rambam [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...4
But, the Rambam concludes that regardless of intent, the act of tattooing is prohibited.5
Aaron Demsky of Bar-Ilan University in an article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica6 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.7
See, I have engraved You on the palms of my hands...8
...is a sign on every man's hand that all men may know His doings.9
While these verses may be purely metaphoric, Demsky suggests they could be taken literally as instances of tattooing that were acceptable in biblical times. He goes on to add that A. Cowley showed that in Elephantine, slaves of Jews were marked with the names of their owners as was the general practice.10
Regardless of the exact limits of this prohibition, over time the rabbis clearly extended the prohibition to include all tattooing.11
In our day, the prohibition against all forms of tattooing regardless of their intent, should be maintained. In addition to the fact that Judaism has a long history of distaste for tattoos, tattooing becomes even more distasteful in a contemporary secular society that is constantly challenging the Jewish concept that we are created b'tzelem Elokim (in the image of God) and that our bodies are to be viewed as a precious gift on loan from God, to be entrusted into our care and not our personal property to do with as we choose. Voluntary tattooing even if not done for idolatrous purposes expresses a negation of this fundamental Jewish perspective.
As tattoos become more popular in contemporary society, there is a need to reinforce the prohibition against tattooing in our communities and counterbalance it with education regarding the traditional concept that we are created b'tzelem Elokim. But, however distasteful we may find the practice there is no basis for restricting burial to Jews who violate this prohibition or even limiting their participation in synagogue ritual. The fact that someone may have violated the laws of kashrut at some point in his or her life or violated the laws of Shabbat would not merit such sanctions; the prohibition against tattooing is certainly no worse. It is only because of the permanent nature of the tattoo that the transgression is still visible.
New laser technology has raised the possibility of removing what was once irremovable. To date, this procedure is painful, long and very expensive. However, it will probably not be long before the process is refined to the point where it will not be painful, overly involved or very expensive. At such a time it might be appropriate for the law committee to consider whether removal of tattoos should become a requirement of teshuvah, conversion or burial.
The prohibition of tattooing throughout the halakhic literature deals only with personal, voluntary tattooing. With respect to the reprehensible practice of the Nazis who marked the arms of Jews with tattooed numbers and letters during the Shoah, the Shulchan Aruch makes it clear that those who bear these tattoos are blameless:
If it [the tattoo] was done in the flesh of another, the one to whom it was done is blameless.12
Tattoos which are used in cancer treatment or any similar medical procedure to permanently mark the body for necessary life saving treatment are also not included in the prohibition against tattooing.13
The prohibition against tattoos applies only to permanent marks to the skin. Therefore hand stamps or other popular children's decorations which mimic tattoos and paint the skin in a non-permanent manner cannot be included under the prohibition of tattooing. However, l'shem chinuch (for the purpose of education), it might be appropriate for parents to make the distinction clear to their children. These also present an excellent opportunity to introduce young children to the concept that we are created b'tzelem Elokim and the implications of that concept.
While 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.
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.15
There is some disagreement in the Gemarah16 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."17
Aaron said to them, "Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives..."18
I decked you out in finery...I put a ring in your nose, and earrings in your ears...19
This is also well documented in rabbinic times:
...small girls may go out [on Shabbat] with threads or even chips in their ears 20
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.21 While Rashi seems to understand this chip as being tucked behind the ear, Jacob Lauterbach22 understands it as an example of piercing. The same expression, , is found in the above-cited mishnah of Shabbat23 and clearly refers to piercing. It was also a well established custom in European countries well into the Middle Ages for tradesmen to wear pierced earrings of the symbol of their trade.
The surgical process of piercing both the ear and the nose seems to be well documented in the Bible and the Talmud. While there are many today who would find the biblical custom of nose piercing unacceptable, there are apparently many young people today who find it attractive. And while some are uncomfortable with men having their ears pierced, even this has a precedent in traditional literature. The only issue that seems to direct this matter is the fashion of the day. It is hard to argue from a halakhic perspective that there is a substantive difference between the non-permanent piercing of the ear for fashion purposes and the non-permanent piercing of the eyebrow, navel or even nipple. The lack of aesthetic appeal to many of us is hardly a halakhic consideration.
There are some legitimate concerns which could and should be raised. There is a concern that an inappropriate procedure or lack of proper hygiene involved in the piercing of a clitoris, nipple or scrotum, for example, could lead to an infection with significant consequences. Piercing should only be done by those medically qualified to address these concerns.
In addition there is the issue of b'tzelem Elokim and tzniut (modesty). With respect to the traditional Jewish value of tzniut, one has to wonder if "private" parts of the body are being pierced for fashion purposes, if the intent is to keep that private part private. While there may be no prohibition against such body piercings they must be placed in the larger context of tzniut, which remains an important Jewish value.
And, while ear piercing seems to be a fairly benign practice, there comes some point where multiple piercing of the body, however fashionable, begins to challenge our concept of b'tzelem Elokim. It seems to me that Jews sufficiently educated and sensitive to the concepts of tzniut and b'tzelem Elokim will limit themselves appropriately regarding body piercing. I am reminded of a d'var Torah Rabbi David Weiss Halivni once gave at the Seminary regarding the permissibility of animal hunting for pleasure by Jews quoting a teshuvah by Rabbi Ezekiel ben Judah Landau.24 After taking some time to explain why it was indeed permitted by the Torah he concluded by saying, "Yes, it is permitted, but what kind of a Jew would want to hunt for pleasure?" While not nearly as serious an issue as hunting one can only wonder what questions about body piercing and tattooing tell us about our contemporary community.
Ultimately this seems to be a matter of fashion which will pass with time. But until then, we should strengthen the sense of tzniut, which should guide our fashion choices and underscore our belief that we are created b'tzelem Elokim in an attempt to balance contemporary pressures. But, I see no basis for any sanctions on those who engage in such fashions, certainly not of the magnitude of refusing burial in a Jewish cemetery or refraining from including them in any synagogue practices.
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