Tattoos - What Exactly Is Prohibited?
For my parents, grandparents, and those who preceded them, tattooing, and body marking in general, were incompatible with “good Jews.” This viewpoint was prevalent across the full spectrum of cultures, regions of origin, affiliation, and observance. Most ubiquitous is the mistaken assertion that tattooed individuals may not be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
This “bubbe meise,” or “urban legend,” has been given popular coinage in, for example, the “Special Section” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The mortuary manager informs the show’s main character, Larry David, that his mother was interred in the special section reserved for “villains, suicides, and gentiles who are from mixed marriages,” because of a tattoo on “the right cheek of her right buttock, if you will...” He also accurately cites the Leviticus verse that is the core subject of the present article.
On the other hand, for post baby-boom Jews in the US, Europe, and Israel, ink has become more widely accepted and commonplace, except among the Orthodox. The rhetoric catalyzed by this generation gap is often laden with emotion, and absent real knowledge about the prohibition, produces more heat than light.
The Tattoo Prohibition in Leviticus 19:28b
The longstanding Jewish antipathy to permanent body art is based on a passage that is part of a short set of laws in Lev 19:26–28 that are concerned with three potentially interconnected topics: sorcery; death and mourning; and body marking.
The key phrase, כְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע, which I translate as “incised writing,” is unique. Doubtlessly, the word כְתֹבֶת, from the root כתב “to write,” indicates some type of writing, but the specific construct noun form appears only in this verse.
Even more difficult is the word קַעֲקַע, which is a hapax legomenon, appearing only in this verse. Lexica offer little help in the way of etymology or cognates, as the most likely roots for the term, *קוע or *קעע, are otherwise unattested in the Bible.
Despite the seeming semantic and philological complexities of כְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע, all early interpreters agree that the expression prohibits tattoos. The Temple Scroll (11QT/11Q19 48:9) virtually replicates Lev 19:28b, but substitutes תכתובו, “you shall (not) write,” for תִתְּנוּ. The difference may represent either an unconscious memory/copy error, perhaps conditioned by כְתֹבֶת, or a deliberate attempt to underscore the precise nature of the activity and to differentiate it from the cutting/gashing detailed in the previous clause.
The LXX has γράμματα στικτὰ “tattooed/incised lettering/writing,” with uniform translations in Targum Onqelos, רוּשְׁמִין חֲרִיתִין, and Saadiah’s Tafsir כתאבה רשם. Pseudo-Jonathan’s more expansive rendering, כְתַב חָקִיק לִרְשַׁם חָרִית צִיוּרָא, “engraved writing, to mark a figure through incision,” is explicit about tattoos as engravings that can include lettering or images. The medieval commentators clarify that tattoos are permanent—Rashi refers to writing that שֶׁאֵינוֹ נִמְחָק לְעוֹלָם “can never be erased” and Joseph Bekhor Shor to tattoos that נראה לעולם “will be forever visible,” distinguishing tattooing from simple writing that can be erased.
A fundamental question for understanding Leviticus 19:28b is whether the law forbids any and all tattoos, or whether the proscription is qualified. Commentators offer at least five different approaches to the nature and scope of the prohibition.
1. Blanket Prohibition
The Mishnah (Makkot 3:6) lays out an unqualified tattoo prohibition for Jews, defining tattooing as having two distinct and necessary components: puncturing the skin; and writing. To transgress the Torah’s prohibition, one must carry out together both components. Additionally, the sages specify the use of ink or other types of coloring agents. The Mishnah, like the Temple Scroll, opts for כתב as the verb connoting application of the tattoo, instead of the Torah’s נתן.
הַכּוֹתֵב כְּתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע, כָּתַב וְלֹא קִעֲקַע, קִעֲקַע וְלֹא כָתַב, אֵינוֹ חַיָּב, עַד שֶׁיִּכְתּוֹב וִיקַעֲקֵעַ בַּדְּיוֹ וּבַכְּחוֹל וּבְכָל דָּבָר שֶׁהוּא רוֹשֵׁם.
One who writes incised writing—if they write but do not incise, or incise but do not write, they are not liable, until they write and incise in ink or kohl or anything that marks.
The corresponding Tosefta (Makkot 4:15) provides the sole mitigating factor: if the tattoo is applied unintentionally (אם היו שוגגין פטורין). Medieval commentaries and halakhists generally agree that the biblical passage contains a blanket prohibition.
Inviolability of the Body
In support of the blanket-prohibition interpretation, British Bible scholar Gordon Wenham and Israeli Bible scholar Meir Bar Ilan, each point to the notion that humans are created in the divine image (Gen 1:26–27):
בראשׁית א:כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל־הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ׃ א:כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם׃
Gen 1:26 And God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness. They shall dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” 1:27 And God created humanity in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
Consequently, they argue, the human body may not be marred or altered. This interpretation is not grounded well in the text, as the connection between tattooing and defiling the divine image is never raised or even hinted at in the context of the Bible’s body marking, cutting, or shaving proscriptions.
Moreover, the wearing of ear and nose rings (נזם, עגיל) by men and women is widely mentioned without stigma or negative editorial judgment (Gen 24:30, 35:4; Exod 32:2, 35:22; Ezek 16:12; Hos 2:15; Prov 25:12; Job 42:11) and confirmed by Bronze/Iron Age archaeological finds in Israel. These adornments would, perforce, require an initial piercing.
Most significantly, the concept of inalterable human physical perfection is applied anachronistically to the biblical worldview. Rather, it is a Hellenistic import that would have penetrated the Jewish consciousness no earlier than the post-Alexandrian, Ptolemaic era.
2. Tattooing YHWH’s Name
Another interpretation, also found in the Mishnah quoted above, is that the tattoo law is meant to address a specific idolatrous practice (Makkot 3:6):
רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יְהוּדָה מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, אֵינוֹ חַיָּב עַד שֶׁיִּכְתּוֹב שָׁם הַשֵּׁם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ויקרא יט) וּכְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע לֹא תִתְּנוּ בָּכֶם אֲנִי ה'
R. Shimon b. Yehudah from R. Shimon says: They are not liable until they write God’s name, as it says (Lev 19:28) “and do not put incised writing on yourselves. I am YHWH.”
R. Shimon here pushes back against the idea of a comprehensive tattoo prohibition. Instead, he accepts the verse as only forbidding tattoos of the Tetragrammaton. We see a clever manipulation of the Torah’s syntax, essentially putting quotation marks around “I am YHWH,” reading the text effectively as “Do not put a tattoo on yourself [that says] ‘I am YHWH.’”
3. Tattooing a Foreign Deity’s Name
The Babylonian Talmud (b. Makkot 21a) takes up the Mishnah’s dissenting voice but pushes the idea in the opposite direction, arguing that the prohibition concerns writing the name of a deity other than YHWH:
אמר ליה רב אחא בריה דרבא לרב אשי עד דיכתוב אני ה' ממש אמר ליה לא כדתני בר קפרא אינו חייב עד שיכתוב שם עבודת כוכבים שנאמר וכתובת קעקע לא תתנו בכם אני ה' אני ה' ולא אחר
Rav Acha son of Rava said to Rav Ashi; Only if he just writes “I am YHWH?” He said to him; No—as Bar Kappara teaches; They are not liable until they write an idolatrous name, as it says; “and do not put incised writing on yourselves. I am YHWH,” I am YHWH and there is no other.
Bar Kappara’s view as adopted by the 12th century peshat commentator Joseph Bekhor Shor (ad loc.):
וגם הוא חוק לעבודה זרה, שכך רגילים לכתוב שם עבודה זרה על בשרם.
This too is a rule about idolatry, since it was the general practice (of polytheists) to write the name of their god on their flesh.
4. A Mourning Ritual
Another interpretation, noting that the context of the prohibition is laws concerning death and mourning, argues that this must be the meaning here as well. Abraham ibn Ezra’s (1089–1167) gloss on Leviticus 19:28 appears to support this position:
יש אומרים שהוא דבק עם ושרט לנפש כי יש מי שירשום גופו בצורה הידועה באש על המת. ויש עד היום מורשמים בנערותם בפניהם להיותם מוכרים.
Some say that it [the tattoo prohibition] is linked to “gashes in your flesh for the dead (Lev 19:28a)” because there are those who mark their body in a known manner with flame for the dead. To this day, there are people who mark their faces in their youth to make themselves recognized.
Ibn Ezra does not identify the “some” in “some say.” Nonetheless, his comment is telling. Typically, יש אומרים precedes an attributed assertion to which Ibn Ezra will object. In this case, I think Ibn Ezra agrees with the linkage between the laws, but he does not want to own up to this opinion directly. To do so would signify that he read לָנֶפֶשׁ in the verse as governing both שֶׂרֶט and כְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע, thus forbidding only tattoos in the context of mourning and death, which would go against the standard halakhic interpretation.
In his Hoʾil Moshe commentary (ad loc.), the Italian scholar Moshe Isaac Ashkenazy (1821–1898) went so far as to offer a theological explanation of this view:
וטעם כתבת קעקע היה לזכור איש חבתם שמת, והיו חוקקים שמו או תמונתו על כף היד או על הזרוע במחט... למען יהיו נגד עיניהם תמיד.... וזה מנהג לא טוב לפי שהוא כמכחיש השארת הנפש אחר המות... כן באמונתנו שאחר זמן מועט נתראה שנית אחר המות עם נפש איש חבתנו, אין לנו להקפיד להשאיר לנו זכרון ממנו, והמקפיד על זה עד שמצער גופו בפעולה קשה כזאת, מראה שאינו בטוח לראות עוד אוהבו שמת, ואם כן כופר בעיקר השארת הנפש....
The reason for tattooing was to remember the beloved dead, and they would carve the person’s name or picture on their hand or arm with a needle… so they would be before them always… and this is a bad practice, since it denies the survival of the soul after death… since according to our faith, after a short time, we will see the other person again after death, we should not try so hard to have keepsakes, and those who are particular about this, to the point that they cause pain to their own flesh with this harsh act, show that they are not confident that they will see their departed loved ones again, and if so, they are deniers of the immortality of the soul…
Putting aside the theological embellishment here, the distinctly poetic cast to verse 28 offers structural evidence in support of this view:
וְשֶׂרֶט לָנֶפֶשׁ לֹא תִתְּנוּ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם
וּכְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע לֹא תִתְּנוּ בָּכֶם —
And gashes for the dead to not put on your flesh;
and incised writing do not put on yourselves.
—I am YHWH.
The parallelism in the verse is hard to miss:
- the repetition of לֹא תִתְּנוּ in both halves of the verse;
- the obvious correspondence of בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם and בָּכֶם; and
- the paired nouns שֶׂרֶט and כְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע.
The missing piece, of course, in clause b, is the crux, לָנֶפֶשׁ. Still, the omission of one word or syntactic element in the second colon of a couplet is common in biblical and ancient Semitic poetry. Thus, a contention that לָנֶפֶשׁ is implied in 28b, yielding an intended meaning “do not put incised writing on yourself for the dead,” is plausible.
Baruch Schwartz of Hebrew University argues in favor of this approach, treating Leviticus 19:26–28 unit as a rhetorical whole:
All four of the prohibitions are intended to warn against bodily mutilations done to honor the dead, for the purpose of mourning, or the cult of the dead.
Schwartz makes a strong case and brings a raft of relevant evidence. Most persuasively, he highlights Lev 21:8 and Deut 12:1–2, where shaving and gashing are explicitly mourning customs. Nevertheless, this approach is not definitive.
Leviticus 19 contains other examples of seeming stand-alone commands, negative and positive, found within a single verse or textual unit. In verse 3, for example, אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ, “everyone must revere their mother and their father,” is not intrinsically linked with אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ, “keep my Sabbaths,” especially since the latter injunction is repeated in verse 30, this time paired with מִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ, “revere my sanctuaries.”
In this case, it seems possible that the laws about cutting, shaving, and tattooing cohere simply as prohibitions against different types of physical alteration, and they need not all be connected to mourning rituals.
5. The Practice of Branding Slaves
Jacob Milgrom (1923–2010) takes a different approach, dismissing any relationship between כְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע and mourning rituals:
Instead of searching (in vain) for a mourning rite to explain the juxtaposition of tattooing to laceration, tattooing should be regarded as an independent prohibition aimed, perhaps among other objectives, at the abolition of slavery in Israel.
His thesis has merit. There is considerable evidence of tattoos as slave marks in the ancient Near East, where typically, the name of the owner is etched or branded on the slave’s body, often their arm. The Akkadian term for tattoo—šimtu (also attested as šindu and simtu)—is cognate to the Aramaic שנת, a legal term used to describe markings on slaves. For example, a document from the archive of the Elephantine Jewish garrison (5th century B.C.E.) dealing with the manumission of a female slave owned by Mibtachiah reads:
שנית על ידה בימן שניתת מקרא ארמית כזנה למבטחיה
The mark on her right arm is marked in the Aramaic language as follows: “Mibtachiah’s.”
The notion of the tattoo as slave mark is certainly implied in Isaiah 44:5, where the collective Israelite nation frames its devotion to YHWH as that of slave to master:
ישׁעיה מד:ה זֶה יֹאמַר לַי־הוָה אָנִי וְזֶה יִקְרָא בְשֵׁם־יַעֲקֹב וְזֶה יִכְתֹּב יָדוֹ לַי־הוָה וּבְשֵׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל יְכַנֶּה.
Isa 44:5 This one will say “I am YHWH’s,” and this one will call on the name “Jacob,” and this one will inscribe his arm “YHWH’s,” and adopt the name “Israel.”
The language here provides a direct Hebrew parallel to the Aramaic phraseology in the Elephantine documents cited above—כתב + יד + ownership indicated by ל prefixed to a proper name. The Isaiah 44 passage can also be understood in light of the ancient Near Eastern custom, mentioned above, in which cultic devotees are tattooed with the name of a deity.
While the terminological correspondence is not absolute, the same symbolism is suggested in Isaiah 49:14–16, but with an inversion of the power dynamic. YHWH affirms his proximity and commitment to the people with what seems to be a tattoo on his hand:
ישׁעיה מט:יד וַתֹּאמֶר צִיּוֹן עֲזָבַנִי יְ־הוָה וַאדֹנָי שְׁכֵחָנִי. מט:טו ...וְאָנֹכִי לֹא אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ. מט:טז הֵן עַל־כַּפַּיִם חַקֹּתִיךְ חוֹמֹתַיִךְ נֶגְדִּי תָּמִיד.
Isa 49:14 Zion said “YHWH abandoned me and Adonai forgot me. 49:15 ...but I will not forget you. 49:16 Thus, I have engraved you on [my] palms. Your walls are always before me.
There are wider implications for Isaiah’s use of the tattoo motif. If tattoos, on their face, had been universally considered transgressive by biblical era Judeans, would Isaiah’s author have employed these metaphors for such theologically weighty statements? Either tattoos were not generally prohibited, or we see an instance of Leviticus 19 and Deutero-Isaiah holding opposing viewpoints on the issue.
The view that prohibiting tattooing was meant to curb a practice having to do with slavery could actually be extended to the prohibition of in the previous verses, לֹא תַקִּפוּ פְּאַת רֹאשְׁכֶם, “Do not round off the corner hair of your head,” since tonsure (Akkad. abbuttu gullubu) was also used to mark slaves.
Milgrom’s proposal that Lev 19:28 intends a repudiation of slavery, or at least the enslavement of Israelites, is also credible on the macro level. Such an anti-slavery polemic would, no doubt, be conditioned by the master-slave social analogy pervasive in the Tanakh, epitomizing the relationship between YHWH and Israel. The master-slave theological framework is quite pointed in Leviticus 25:42 and 55.
ויקרא כה:מב כִּי־עֲבָדַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם לֹא יִמָּכְרוּ מִמְכֶּרֶת עָבֶד.
Lev 25:42 “For they are my slaves whom I brought out from Egypt, they may not be sold as slaves.”
ויקרא כה:נה כִּי־לִי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדִים עֲבָדַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵאתִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
Lev 25:55 “For the Israelites are slaves to me. They are my slaves whom I brought out of the land of Egypt. I am YHWH, your God.”
The thrust, effectively, is that since Israel must be slaves to YHWH exclusively, they may not be owned by another Israelite, and should be prevented, if possible, from enslavement to a foreigner. The logic behind Milgrom’s interpretation of כְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע is that, by extension, Israelites should also avoid any trappings of slavery.
While his case is credible, it is not conclusive. Leviticus 25, a major treatise about slavery, is silent about marks, brands, or tattoos. Similarly, while Lev 19:28b could be a clause independent of its preceding verses, death and mourning do figure prominently in the textual unit under consideration.
What Kind of Tattoos Are Forbidden? We Don’t Know
What does all this mean for Jews today who wish to consider getting tattooed? While we did see some alternative opinions within a few authoritative pre-modern texts, the weight of halakhic tradition overwhelmingly brands the act itself as forbidden. For those, however, concerned with the Torah’s law itself, a close and rigorous reading of Leviticus 19:26–28 indicates that it could either contain a blanket tattoo prohibition or that it could be barring only tattoos applied in certain circumstances: whether blasphemy, idolatry, mourning rituals, or slave branding. We simply cannot determine an original authorial intent with full confidence.
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Dr. David Bernat is Consultant in Outreach and Development with JALSA, The Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action. He has a PhD in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies from Brandeis, is the author of Sign of the Covenant: Circumcision in the Priestly Tradition and co-editor of Religion and Violence: The Biblical Heritage. Bernat has held faculty positions at UMass Amherst and Wellesley College, and regularly leads adult education tours to Israel with an historical and archaeological focus.
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