Messianic Apologetics

Addressing the Theological and Spiritual Issues of the Broad Messianic Movement

Tattooing and Body Piercing – FAQ

I have noticed that many of the younger people in my congregation are getting tattooed, and/or that they have many odd body piercings. What does the Torah say about this?

I have noticed that many of the younger people in my congregation are getting tattooed, and/or that they have many odd body piercings. What does the Torah say about this?

Tattooing and Body Piercing



reproduced from Torah In the Balance, Volume II

Two definite areas of personal grooming, not only to which the Torah issues some important instruction—but which are widely witnessed in Western society today—concern the areas of tattooing and body piercings. On the whole, concurrent with a great deal of today’s Judaism, the Messianic movement does not look favorably on people having their bodies “inked” with tattoos. For that same matter, Messianics do not tend to be that excited about affluent body piercings all over one’s person.

Leviticus 19:28 directs, “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.” The noun ketovet involves “a writing (mark or sign) of imprintment, scriptio stigmatis, perh. of tattooing” (BDB),[1] and is rendered by the NJPS with “incise,” the Koren Jerusalem Bible with “print,” and Fox’s Five Books of Moses as “skin-etching.”[2] There is little dispute that tattooing is in view, although obviously not the more developed tattooing witnessed today in parlors with electronic needles. But is tattooing in general what is prohibited, or only tattooing for the sake of the dead and/or memorializing something? Some useful guidelines are elaborated by Conservative Jewish Rabbi Ron Isaacs, in his book Kosher Living: It’s More Than Just the Food:

“The prohibition of tattooing is found in the Torah…{quoting Leviticus 19:28}….Maimonides clearly sees the origin of this prohibition as an act of idolatry, stating that pagans would mark themselves for idolatry. In our day most traditional rabbis maintain that 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 in God’s image 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….

“New laser technology has raised the possibility of removing what was once irremovable. It will likely not be long before such technology is affordable and less painful than it currently is. When this occurs, the more traditional branches of Judaism may then choose to consider whether removal of tattoos should become a requirement for conversion or burial.”[3]

Sandra Dimas represents a rather negatively-oriented evangelical Christian approach to tattoos. While she would seemingly think that beyond various moral imperatives, God’s Torah would more-or-less have been instruction for Ancient Israel in the pre-resurrection era—the thoughts that she has gathered on whether or not modern Christian Believers should tattoo themselves cannot go overlooked:

Some might argue that these words are enough to forbid body ornamentation. Others may say we are living “in the New Testament” and no longer under Old Testament laws. But…we have to dig a little deeper to get to the “universal principle” in focus.

As Krista [Bontrager] points out, “We should consider the context for these commands about cutting and marking your body.” For example, in 1 Kings 18, Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to rouse their god. Verse 28 says, “So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” It’s possible, then, that the modern (or universal) application is not about piercings or tattoos, per se, but about engaging in self-mutilation or bloodletting as part of a pagan ritual…

But before making a bee line to the nearest ink parlor, consider John 14:17; Romans 8:9, 11; and 1 Cor. 6:19–20. These verses make clear that our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit. And 2 Corinthians 6:16 makes a strong point that God does not share temple space with Satan: “And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.”

So are we back to the no-tattoos-and-piercings rule? Not necessarily. “At minimum,” Krista [Bontrager] explains, “we should refrain from tattooing any sort of pagan or tribal symbols on ourselves, especially those that may have connections to pagan worship practices.”

In addition, she offers three questions to consider before decorating our “temples.”

    • Why did I choose this design or piercing?
    • Does it have any religious symbolic connection?
    • Am I doing this as a means of self harm or self mutilation?
    • What message will this piercing/tattoo communicate to people I meet?

In the end, some believers will see body ornamentation as acceptable while others won’t. Whichever conclusion a person comes to, Krista [Bontrager] adds,

Christians should respect the decisions of their brothers and sisters in Christ as this is an issue of Christian freedom. At the same time, we need to be careful what kind of images our choices project about us because we are also called to reflect Christ.

We may not all be adorned with ink or piercings, but we can all be adorned with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” [Colossians 3:12] Who would be angry about that?[4]

While some would consider tattooing an issue of adiaphora or things indifferent, many of the tattoos that people get today, including many committed Christians, are precisely to remember family members, friends, or fellow soldiers and sailors, who have died. Just think of all of the 9/11 memorial tattoos one will encounter today. Certainly for those serving in the military, servicemen and women who receive a tattoo to remember their tour of duty in a particular army regiment or on board a ship, usually do so with the purpose of remembering those who have fallen. And, as mundane as one might think it to be, getting the flag of one’s home country tattooed on oneself, is also most probably done to remember those who have died. This would be in direct violation of the entire statement of Leviticus 19:28: “Don’t cut gashes in your flesh when someone dies or tattoo yourselves; I am ADONAI” (CJB). And, it can be observed how there can be various dark, spiritual dynamics to such tattooing. Many of the tattoos people receive today, are quantitatively indifferent than those of Ancient Israel’s pagan neighbors.

Obviously, the Lord is gracious enough to look beyond one’s ignorance of the Torah’s instruction regarding tattoos. However, Messianic people—including many Messianic Jews—who have been tattooed, need to very much consider having them removed. Cosmetically speaking, tattoos will change as people get older, and they will not look the same—and some will even look grotesque on a person, because of age. But far more serious, spiritually speaking, if there had ever been a reason for someone to be tattooed to remember a deceased comrade, then a full violation of Leviticus 19:28 has been committed, and a mature Believer in Messiah Yeshua should want to see past errors fully rectified.

The issue and controversy of body piercings, which could range from a relatively standard and culturally accepted one earring in either ear for females, to men wearing earrings, to people in general having multiple body piercings in multiple parts of their bodies, is something which can arise when evaluating Deuteronomy 14:1: “You are the sons of the LORD your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave your forehead for the sake of the dead.” Here, the verb rendered as “cut” is gadad, appearing in the Hitpael stem (intensive action, reflexive voice), can indeed mean “to make incisions upon oneself” (HALOT),[5] hence a number of Jewish versions having “gash” (NJPS, Jerusalem Bible-Koren) or “cut gashes” (Keter Crown Bible), and the NRSV having “lacerate.”

The type of cutting or mutilation in view is obviously pagan in origin. Elsewhere in the Tanach, pagan people cutting or gashing themselves, either for mourning the dead or entreating a deity, is witnessed (1 Kings 18:28; Jeremiah 16:6-7; 41:4-5; 47:5). It is also logical to assume that some of these practices may have been involved with ancestor worship or various cults of the dead (Deuteronomy 18:8-11). But does the cutting detailed by Deuteronomy 14:1 really have to do with wearing earrings, nose rings, or some other body piercing common in some parts of society today? Addressing the question, “I want to get my nose pierced. Is this kosher?”, Issacs summarizes,

“Although contemporary Jewish law does not prohibit body piercing, I continue to have questions about whether or not it challenges the value of ‘in God’s image’ (Genesis 1:26). At all times Jews should remember that they are created in God’s image and that they are called to incorporate this understanding into all of their decisions.

“You may be interested to know that ear piercing is not exclusively a contemporary phenomenon. It was known even in Biblical and Talmudic times. In the Torah a pierced ear is the sign of a slave who had earned freedom but chose to remain enslaved. The Talmud tells of various Jewish artisans who wore earrings to indicate the specific nature of their trades. The rabbis make no negative comment about those ancient examples of widespread piercing.

“Not long ago the Law Committee of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly issued a permissive ruling with regard to body piercing. If body piercing was acceptable to the rabbis of the Talmud, we have no Jewish cause to object.

“There are, however, two exceptions. Judaism prohibits body piercings that interfere with personal hygiene and can therefore threaten our health. We are not permitted to imperil our good health for the benefits of fashion. Piercing of the genitals is also prohibited, both on hygienic grounds and because of the Jewish value of tzinut (modesty). Our tradition teaches us to treat our private parts as just that, private. Only in our most intimate relationships, and to obtain necessary health care, are we permitted to expose ourselves. Out of respect for those parts of our bodies most directly involved with the highest of human acts, the creation of a new generation of life, we must not treat our genitals as display cases for our jewels.”[6]

What the Bible communicates about body piercings might not be as clear or as direct as some might want them to be. However, the locations where people commonly get body piercings, tend to be the same locations where people are tattooed. Many of the body parts where it is popular for people to be pierced are those which would be considered sexual. And, there are various cultural associations with body piercings in certain parts of the human person, which are non-sexual, which today’s Messianic people would not want. People who get their lips pierced, do look like they had a fishing accident! Still, it is to be recognized that a female who has pierced ears, but no other body piercings, would in Judaism be in a much different position than someone who might have a pierced tongue. The latter would be much, much more of a risk to health, than the former.


NOTES

[1] BDB, 508.

[2] Everett Fox, trans., The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 605.

[3] Ron Isaacs, Kosher Living: It’s More Than Just the Food (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005), pp 46-47

Some of the features of Isaacs’ book are discussed in Chapter 3 of the Messianic Kosher Helper, “Kosher Living: More Than a Diet” by Mark Huey.

[4] Sandra Dimas. (2010). Thinking about Ink. Reasons to Believe. Retrieved 30 July, 2014, from <http://www.reasons.org>.

[5] HALOT, 1:177.

[6] Isaacs, pp 44-45.