A Kosher Tattoo?

There was a post on Facebook today being spread around by some friends that sparked a little bit of conservation between a fellow Karaite brother and myself. First off, here is the picture: 

While I agree that getting a tattoo about the abominable nature of homosexual bedroom behavior is hilarious because tattoos themselves are forbidden by the same book of the Bible, the discussion that my dear Karaite brother brought up was of the issue of the complete prohibition of tattoos. Does the Torah ban all tattoos or markings on the flesh outright or are their certain scenarios when tattoos are permissible? Before I address this specific dilemma, let’s back up a bit and attempt to put things into context here a little bit. After all, context is everything; right?

The book of ויקרא (“va-yi-kraw”), or in English, Leviticus, is mainly known to be a book of specific instruction. Though the entire Torah can be called a book of instructions, some instructions from other books of the Torah are commands learned by studying the character traits of some of the main tzadikim (righteous ones) of the Torah. Leviticus, however, is very concise and to the point. There are a lot of “don’t do this”, “do do this” (yes, I wrote “do do”) and the like. Leviticus 19 pretty much reads like a grocery list. 

  • Obey your parents
  • Keep the Sabbath 
  • Don’t make idols
  • Offer sacrifices where they are accepted
  • You may eat sacrifices, but leftovers to the third day are to be burned
  • Leave the corners of your field for the poor
  • Don’t steal from each other
  • Don’t lie from each other
  • Pay your workers aptly 
  • Treat the disabled nicely….
I was paraphrasing, but you get the picture. 

Now, some of these commands can filed together while others are fairly random in their order (well, I’m sure they’re not random; it’s just that I certainly don’t know the method to the seeming-madness). Some of these commands, such as not mixing your herds, your seeds, or your clothing (verse 19) flow very nicely together and stay on track. Others, like the command to only offer a sacrifice where it is accepted, not leaving any of it for more than three days directly followed by leaving the corners of your field unharvested for the poor to come a glean from (verses 5-9) don’t seem to go together as much. 

There has become a method of lumping together the meaning for doing commands. Sometimes, this works. Other times, this method can get a little hairy. Here’s the verse we’re discussing in this post: 

ושרט לנפש לא תתנו בבשרכם וכתבת קעקע לא תתנו בכם אני יהוה
“You shall not put any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves; I am the LORD” 
-Leviticus 19:28

Let us attempt to gain some context by reading some of the verses before and after this to see if we can tell exactly why God is instructing Israel to not cut themselves for the dead or put tattoos on themselves. 

Here are the verses directly before and after this verse:
“You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” – Leviticus 19:27
“Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute, lest the land fall into prostitution and the land become full of depravity.”  – Leviticus 19:29

Even if one was to expand beyond this sphere, the verse before 27 is relating to agriculture in the Holy Land and the verse after 29 is about putting trust in fortune tellers.

The most popular interpretation makes marring one’s beard, shaving one’s temples, cutting one’s flesh, and getting tattoos permissible as long as it is not as a form of idolatrous worship or in mourning over the loss of the dead. In actuality, all of these practices that are not simply common sense (not mistreating the disabled, being charitable to the poor, etc.) were widely practiced in other cultures; especially by those who were inhabiting the Holy Land before Israel showed up on the scene. Men shaved th
eir beards and displayed tribal affiliation with tattooed markings and designs shaved into the sides of their heads. Prostitution, “the world’s oldest profession”, was widely practiced and many men sold their daughters into the business. It was the natural thing. What was God getting at by making these commands? 

Israel was to be different. Though a beard might not make anyone necessarily better, in a clean-shaven society, it definitely makes one different. All of these commands were so that Israel would be different. “Holy” does not “better”, but merely “set apart” and Israel was called to be a set-apart nation.  

As for tattooing; the term in the Torah does not specifically refer to the procedure of injecting ink under the skin, but is referring to any markings on the skin and is not directly tied to the act of mourning the way that making cuts in the skin is in verse 27. The ESV version does a decent job of expressing the Hebrew’s specifications on the making cuts in the flesh for the dead, as the literal Hebrew would read like this: 

Cuts the dead nor make your body marks, marks nor make. I am the LORD.” 

The two “marks” are two different words. One being “u’ketobet” more of the verb sense of making the mark the way “marking” would be in English. The other is “ka’aka” being more of the noun side of a “mark.” I would need to do more research on this, but it does seem close to “kara”, as in “Karaim” which means “readers of Hebrew Scriptures.” This is the Hebrew term for the Karaites; those who not believe in the divine nature of any extra-Biblical works.

Also, notice in the verse where it clarifies that it is cuts for the dead, as a mourning ritual, that are forbidden, but the prohibition against tattoos remains broad. I personally believe this is to allow for certain medical procedures or instances when the cutting of the flesh is actually beneficial; such as in surgical procedures or in draining harmful materials from the body. 

The beauty of Karaite Judaism is that disagreements are actually celebrated because we believe we are free to interpret the Scriptures for ourselves. While I don’t fully agree with my Karaite brother who says that tattoos are fine unless they are in mourning or are part of worshiping an idol, we embrace our ability to disagree. 

Don’t get me wrong; I think tattoos neat. Some of the most fantastic works of art I’ve seen are tattoos and when someone shows me their tattoo, I can appreciate the artistry and the hard work that went into its design and creation. Still, I am a Hebrew and getting tattoos is not a part of my spiritual culture. When God called Israel out to be a “holy nation”, that does not necessarily mean a “better nation.” Rather, this means that we are a “set-apart nation.” 
I could have written a post using anti-tattooing cliches like “tattoos are like graffiti on the temple” and the like, but really, I can honestly say the only reason I don’t have tattoos is because the Torah commands me not to. We can rationalize away the commands of Torah and say that “those commands against eating pigs was to protect against trichinosis, but modern-day pork is clean”, but the command still remains and Torah is forever no matter which way we attempt to worm our way out.