Leviticus 19 Misconceptions: Tattoo Teshuva & Patchy Piety

Have you ever seen an observant Jewish person with tattoos on their arms? How about a observant Jewish man with no beard? Though these types of things may seem odd to you, they’re no cause for alarm. They’re actually fine according to both Torah as well as various oral traditions.

Misconception: Having a tattoo is against Torah. 

I’ve heard far too many horror stories about the rabbi or members of the Jewish community who discriminated against the guy who had an arm full of tattoos. I’m here to say that you should let that guy into your community just as quickly as anyone else – possibly more so.

Yes, getting a tattoo is against Torah. Leviticus 19:28 clearly states:
ושרט לנפש לא תתנו בבשרכם וכתבת קעקע לא תתנו בכם אני יהוה
“You shall not make any cuts on your copy for the dead or tattoo yourselves; I am the Lord.”

The keyword in this mitzvah is “תתנו” – “tetanu”, which means to make or to give. This is an active word which does not entail possessing, such as “נשא” – “nasa”, which means to have, to lift up or to exalt.

So, essentially, there is no sin in having a tattoo – only in receiving a tattoo. Still, many who have repented and tried to live spiritually observant lives fall victims to prejudice from even religious leaders in their community due to the stigma that a tattoo brings. When it comes to the mindset that is appropriate, a tattoo is a reminder of a past life – a battle scar.  One must also never forget that if every past averah, every trangression were to leave a physical bodies, we wouldn’t be able to recognize each other.

Misconception: It is a mitzvah to have a beard or side-locks (payot). 

Many believe the symbol of a righteous Jew is a full beard that takes up their entire face and brims over their collar onto their shirt. Many other righteous Jews are pictured with tightly coiled side-locks that add a sense of piety to their character. Still, it says nowhere in Torah to have a full beard or side-locks.

Most all of the great personalities of the Torah had beards. When many think of Charleston Heston playing Moses in “The 10 Commandments”, they remember the big fake beard he wore atop Mount Sinai. Every artist rendition of any positive masculine figure of the Bible is almost sure to have a beard. Still, the Torah nowhere explicitly states that having a full beard is a mitzvah. What does it say?

Leviticus 19:27:
לא תקפו פאת ראשכם ולא תשחית את פאת זקנך
“You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the corners of your beard.”

These mitzvot have nothing to do with having, but rather have to do with not cutting what happens to grow.

While it’s implied that if you don’t cut the hair on the sides of your head or cut the corners of your beard, you will wind up with a very large beard and long side-locks, this isn’t always so. Some men cannot grow good beards or thick hair due to genetics or other reasons. I recently spoke with a Torah-observant man who was ashamed to grow his beard due to some past radiation treatments for cancer making his beard grow back in an odd way.

So, should the thick-full beard and thick payot be the picture of the truly righteous man? No. Even an unrighteous man can look truly handsome with a thick beard. Rather, the picture of righteousness and emunah, faith, is the man who cannot grow a very thick beard, but grows what he can with what he has. A patchy beard for the Creator is a million times more holy than a thick beard as a symbol of one’s own piety.

How My Beard Makes Me Look Stupid & Why That's The Point – Beards In The Bible

(This post is a revised version of another piece I wrote a year ago almost to the day.) 

ךנקז תאפ תא תיחשת אלו םכשאר תאפופקת אל
“You shall not shave around the sides of your heads, neither shall you disfigure the corners of your beard.” – Leviticus 19:27
This passage is one of the most misunderstood verses of the entire Hebrew Bible, but this is not a post trying to understand it. This post will not shed light on what the Creator was getting at by commanding the Hebrews to not cut their beards or shave the hair from the temples of their heads in His Torah. No, this post is embracing this verse for what it is, what the ancient Israelites would have understood it to be, and a possible interpretation you may or may not apply to it.
I consider myself to be a Karaite. A Karaite is, very simply, a Scripturalist Israelite (the term “Kara” in Hebrew being a word meaning “to read”). A Karaite looks at the text and tries their best to put it in context; thinking it through the way an ancient Middle Eastern shepherd or farmer might have. It is with this understanding (or lack thereof) that I tackle this verse.
Many have attempted to throw this verse out of application by trying to “antiquitize” (yes, I made that term up just now) its intent. There have been many, many excuses for not applying this verse in its literal sense of not shaving the hair completely from the corners of one’s head and bringing no harm to the hair of the beard. Some say these practices were done as a sign of mourning, but when not done as a ritual in grief, they are acceptable. Others say these were pagan practices; either as a right of fertility or as a means of showing tribal identification with shapes and designs shaved out of the hair of the temples in ornate designs. How they come to this conclusion is by interpreting this to coincide to either the verse before or the verse after verse 27:
” You shall not eat anything with the blood: neither shall you use divination, nor witchcraft.” –Leviticus 19:26
“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo 
any marks upon you: I am YHVH.” – Leviticus 19:28
pagan tribal affiliation head shaved designs in hair
Designs shaved in the corners of one’s hair on their head – first used by pagan tribes for markings of affiliation.
When the entire chapter of Leviticus 19 is read, many of the prohibitions are given reasons for their observance, but many are given no explanation at all. There is a common theme that runs throughout the chapter: do not be like the rest of the world. The fact that the Almighty had to tell these people these things can be used to help one assume that these practices were taking place amongst those whom the Israelites were interacting. Archeological evidence also supports this thought process. It is understood that these practices were detestable to the God of Israel. However, another interpretation of this could be that even though this behavior did not yet at that time exist, the Holy One could foresee a time when this behavior would occur and He sought to snuff it out amongst His people before it had a chance to take root.
All of these theories are completely beside the point I wish to share; that being my declaration of ignorance! My ignorance is not an ignorance of the text itself, for that is right before our eyes, but an ignorance of the Almighty’s intent for these commands. When we go so far as to assume we know why the Creator of the Universe commanded us not to take part in certain behaviors and made other actions mandatory, we are putting words in His mouth. When we rationalize our act of omitting commands of the Most High, we are, in a sense, inserting a “condition of application” or “fine print” into the text that does not exist. It’s as though we have been including the conditions into the Holy Torah, “in the event that pagan traditions surrounding mourning, fertility, or methods of tribal identification no longer are the norm, disregard Leviticus 19:27 altogether.” To do this, even just in application and without scribbling these additions in the margins of the Torah, such a “condition” is in direction violation of the prohibition against adding or removing mitzvot from the Torah (Deuteronomy 4:2).
Old Samaritan man in a turban with a Torah scroll.

In this age, the ritual removal of facial hair is a very common practice. In fact, this behavior has gone from ritual to habitual just within the past 100 years or so. No United States President since 1889 has worn a full beard (Benjamin Harrison) and no president since Theodore Roosevelt allowed so much as a mustache on their faces. Also, now more than ever before in history are people being called back the Hebrew Scriptures and the observance of Torah. Secular Jews are clamoring back to the heritage of their forefathers. Even Gentiles are shaking off the lies they have been told in the past about their own scriptures and applying more of the Bible to their lives in a much more literal sense.
The mitzvah of not harming one’s beard takes no more faith than any other command, but the reason why so many are apprehensive about observing it is because not only is it on your face, but it’s also “in your face” as far as it being apparent to others. It’s because of this that so many want to find a way out of this commandment rather than be looked at with near-disgust by society. The world sees a full, untrimmed beard as being unhygenic and a symbol of not caring; but in actuality, keeping an “unharmed” and taken care of beard is one of the most natural and healthy things a man can do. I will agree that it is a symbol of not caring, but not caring about what is the question. A full, unharmed beard is a symbol of not caring about what people might say or think. That concept does scare many people, which is why I can say that a full, unharmed beard is not for everyone.
My beard is more than facial hair. It is the act of me announcing my ignorance of God’s intent for certain situations in my life. It is an act of letting go. It is a symbol of the pledge I made Him when I came into His covenant. I have trimmed it in the past in order to better conform to a certain situation in life, but I always regret doing so. It is for that reason that I have decided to never again harm my beard with a blade. Never again shall I cut the hairs of my beard. Is it because I know more than others about why God has told us not to cut our beards? If anything, it’s because I don’t know what else to do.
Now keeping a full beard does not mean being afraid of it, but rather taking care of what God has made grow. We should clean our beards regularly and brush them thoroughly remove any detached hairs from the rest of the beard for the health of the folicals. This also helps to remove the “dirty” stigma from non-trimmed beards. Also, not marring one’s beard does not mean always wearing it completely out in full view; able to get into anything you’re doing. Sometimes, tying the beard back is necessary. This can be done so by braiding the beard and then sticking the braid back through the braid-supporting hairs under the chin, or by holding back with some sort of bandana or cord to keep it free from machinery or other things
Never wear a beard to appear pious. If you ever feel you are growing your beard out with ulterior motives aside from obedience, I wouldn’t recommend wearing an unharmed beard. Also, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve gone without trimming if you speak badly about your neighbor or attempt to cheat people. The folicals of a beard do come from one’s face, but a beard really grows from the heart.
Remember, there actually no commandment anywhere in the Scripture to grow a beard. The command is simply to no cut hair that grows naturally on the corners of one’s face. If you cannot grow a beard, there is something to be said even more for those who cannot not grow a full and thick beard, yet still decide not to mar what grows.
All of this posts are of my opinion. I do not claim them as truth for all because I do not know everyone. All I know is what I see in the text and feeling that goes along with it. I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to share any feedback you have, but try and keep a positive mental attitude.
Many blessings, -Ken
Ken Lane and Joshua Jenkins eating gelato together in Tulsa.
Being silly with my good friend and fellow Hebrew, Joshua Jenkins.