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Parshas Acharei Mos - Kedoshim (5777)

Jews and Tattoos

One of the 613 mitzvos (commandments) in the Torah is the prohibition against having tattoos made on one’s body. As we read in this week’s jam-packed double Torah portion: "… and a tattoo shall you not place upon yourselves …" (Leviticus 19:28). This is accepted Jewish practice, as recorded in the Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 180:1).

[If someone already has a tattoo, there is no obligation for him to remove it, though many people will have their tattoos removed because they feel uncomfortable about them.]

The reason for the Torah prohibition against tattoos is not clear, and the traditional Bible commentators don’t offer much as to a rationale for this commandment.

We can only speculate as to why the Torah forbids tattoos, and two ideas come to mind that I would like to share with you. At the end of the day, though, whether we understand this mitzvah or not, we are commanded by G-d to remain tattoo-less, and we owe Him too much not to listen to whatever He says.

One possible idea behind the Torah’s prohibition against having a tattoo made on one’s body is what I call the “permanence factor”. When one gets a tattoo, he is making a permanent mark on his body, and any statement that he makes with that mark is also permanent. [The laser removal process is very expensive and painful, and it takes a long time, so that a tattoo, once etched into the flesh, is pretty much there to stay.]

Yet human beings change and mature and grow as they get older – and that’s a good thing – so that the people, places, ideas and things that we liked in high school or university will likely change when we get married and have children. In fact, we are in a process of change our entire lives. But the tattoos that were done when we were younger will always remain. So the Torah warns us: “Don’t make any permanent mark on your flesh that you might come to regret later when you are older and wiser.”

[Remember way back in the year 2000 when Angelina Jolie fell in love with Billy Bob Thornton and had a tattoo made on her arm that said “Billy Bob Forever”? Forever, my foot! Their marriage didn’t last three years! When asked about the sudden dissolution of their marriage, Jolie stated, "It took me by surprise, too, because overnight, we totally changed. I think one day we had just nothing in common. And it's scary but... I think it can happen when you get involved and you don't know yourself yet." See what I mean? Of course, a few years later she fell in love with Brad Pitt and tattooed his name on her arm to replace Billy Bob’s. That’s Hollywood for you …]

Of course, some will challenge this idea of the “permanence factor” that it doesn’t explain why G-d would have a problem with a tattoo that said “G-d Rox!” or “I Love Being Jewish” or that was in the shape of a Star of David or something like that. These tattoos all make permanent statements that we hope will never change, so why should they be forbidden?

Another possible rationale for the commandment not to have a tattoo etched into one’s body has to do with the holiness and magnificence of the human body. The Torah states that the human body was created B'tzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d. G-dliness is reflected in every part of the human body, and from our magnificent bodies we can see the greatness of G-d, as it says in the Book of Job, “… and I see G-d from my flesh”.

The human body is holy because it carries the infinite neshamah (soul) inside it. The Torah tells us that Man is called Adam because he comes from the adamah, the ground. Just as the ground has great potential to bring forth produce, so, too, does Man have great potential to grow and become G-dlike.

In fact, the Talmud in Mo’ed Kattan 25a teaches that just as one is obligated to rend his garments when witnessing a Torah scroll being burnt, G-d forbid, so, too, must one rend his garments when witnessing the death of a (good) human being. And Nachmanides explains that the soul inside the body is comparable to the Names of G-d written in a Torah scroll. [To learn more about the Jewish view on the holiness and sanctity of the human body, click on:]

It could be that due to the holiness and splendor of our human bodies and the G-dliness that they reflect, it is simply inappropriate to ‘deface’ this body with tattoos, no matter how artistic they are or how spiritual their message might be. It would be akin to writing graffiti on a magnificent building, which everyone understands is just plain wrong. Thus the Torah forbade etching tattoos on the magnificent and holy entity that is the human body.

Now you may disagree with these ideas, and that’s your prerogative. For my part, I am just trying to understand as best I can why G-d gave us this commandment, and, as the Talmud says (see Berachos 62a), “It is Torah, and I must learn”.

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