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My Traditions Project: Body Piercing and Tattoos.

by Sam Hackel-Butt (Age: 28)
copyright 06-29-2005

Age Rating: 10 +

According to CBC News Online, between 73% and 83% of U.S. women had their ears pierced and between 34% and 52% had complications from their piercing. Between 1960 and 1980, the number of U.S. women who were tattooed quadrupled, totaling between 50,000 and 100,000 tattoos annually. It may seem surprising, but considering how many people feel their identity as an individual is threatened each passing day, body piercing and tattoo’s is one of the outlets used for self-expression.

Today, there is a big issue of having a unique identity, standing out, and not being mistaken for one of the crowd. Many people express themselves through their work, or styles in which they design a house, dress, teach, etc… but for young people, whose lives revolve almost solely around school and social lives, it could be a bit more difficult. While most students lose themselves in their academics, some taking particular interests in certain subjects, there’s still a majority with no idea how to express themselves. That is why today, when you see someone with a tattoo, or facial piercing; there is usually a story to how they got it, and why they chose it.

While many would say it was a spur of the moment type thing, there is still some meaning. Me, I currently have seven ear piercings as I write this, and plan on getting my eighth within the month of March. For me, it means more jewelry to wear, and in a way, a sense of fashion, and my clashing personalities, which differ at times. For most, because I go to a private school, I’m prep, and in some ways, I am. But when I’m not known to go to a private school, my thoughts on punk music, black and my expression to get more piercings and tattoos are more noticed, and not disguised under “Wannabe private school student.” But while my choices of expressions vary, piercings in one of the strong ones.

When I asked some people about their thoughts on piercings (navel, nipple, tongue, eyebrow, lip, earlobe, cartilage, genital) replies were basically that nipple and genital piercings are pointless, for the fact that barely anyone will see them (excluding sexual partners), and they seem dirty in general. Although, views on all other type of piercings, everyone had an open mind. Again, from my own personal life, my friend and I are planning on getting tongue piercings for two reasons primarily: Because it’s cool in our eyes, and it would drive our parents crazy. This is why I think most of today’s youths are decorating themselves with various piercings, because their parents don’t approve, and they want to go against their parents for various reasons.

In Judaism, we are told that we are not allowed to get a permanent tattoo. No questions asked, no exceptions unless you were in the holocaust and had a number tattooed onto your arm. The prohibition of tattooing is found in the Torah: "You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:28). There have been debates on this verse. Now the Mishneh says in response to this: "If a man wrote [on his skin] pricked-in writing, he is not culpable unless he writes it and pricks it in with ink or eye-paint or anything that leaves a lasting mark" (Mishneh Makkot 3:6). But Rabbi Simeon ben Judah disagrees and says that it is the inclusion of God's name which makes it a guilty act: "Rabbi Simeon ben Judah says in the name of Rabbi Simeon: He is not culpable unless he writes there the name [of a god], for it is written, 'Or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.'"

There is even more debate found in the Gemmorah (Babylonian Talmud) whether it’s the inclusion of G-d’s name or a Pagan deity that makes it a guilty act. It’s believed that tattooing is a sign of paganism, and that’s why there have been so many debates. Maimonides sees the origin of this prohibition as an act of idolatry. He includes it in his section concerning idolatry and then explicitly states: "This was a custom among the pagans who marked themselves for idolatry…." But, Maimonides concludes that regardless of intent, the act of tattooing is prohibited (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 12:11).

Tattoos have always had an important role in ritual and tradition; for example, Borneo women tattooed their symbols on their forearm indicating their particular skill. The more useful the skill, the more appealing they are for marriage. Tattoos around the wrist and fingers were believed to ward away illness. They have also signified a tribe, or clan. Tattooing, in general, is believed to have begun before 3,300 B.C. Proof of this was found on the famous Iceman removed from the Otzal Alps between Austria and Italy in 1991. When considering how long tattooing has been around, you must think of the primitive technology used. On the Iceman, for example, his tattoos were made of charcoal under the skin.

From the Otzal Alps, tattooing jumped to Egyptian culture during the Third and Fourth Dynasties (2686 - 2493 B.C.E.) while the pyramids of Gizeh were being built. Evidence has found that The Egyptians began using needled at this point, versus a sharp bone or rock. From Egypt, tattooing spread to Crete, Greece, Persia and Arabia. In Libya, tattooing dates back to 1300 B.C.E. Needles used specifically for tattooing appeared during the Bronze Age (about 200 - 500 B.C.E) Again considering technology; we’ve come a long way. 1,200 B.C. The Lapita's used flat, chisel-shaped pieces of bone that were around 2-4cms long and were sharpened at one end. The “needle” was dipped in pigment, which was made of water and soot, and the “needle” was then hit with a small mallet to drive the pigment into the skin. Before organized religion and the banning of tattoos by these religions, tattoos were accepted if not deeply desired in many cultures. But even if a Jew gets a tattoo, they will not be banned from synagogue, nor refused to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, but will be frowned upon.

So, the question remains. Why is tattooing banned from Judaism, and the same question for body piercings? In many of the cultures mentioned above, piercing was just as important, if not equally, to them as breathing. Egyptian body piercings reflected status and love of beauty. Quoted from “Body piercings are also mentioned in the Bible. In the Old Testament it’s obvious that body jewellery is considered a mark of beauty and wealth.... In many cases, body jewellery was given as a bridal gift or as part of a dowry. It is clear that piercing was a sign of status and attractiveness in Biblical times.”

Ear piercing is mentioned in the Torah in several situations. The most familiar speaks about a Hebrew slave who’s going to be freed in the seventh year of servitude but declares his love for his master and refuses to go free: "...his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life." (Exodus 21:6). There is some
disagreement in the Gemmorah (Babylonian Talmud) as to how permanent this piercing of the slave's ear was supposed to be. But today, our piercings are clearly of a non-permanent nature and intent is purely decorative. This type of piercing was also known in the Torah: "I inquired of her, 'Whose daughter are you?'...And I put the ring on her nose and the bands on her arm" (Genesis 24:47). This is also well documented in rabbinic times: "...small girls may go out [on Shabbat] with threads or even chips in their ears" (Mishneh Shabbat 6:6). Even though there is no law against piercings, we are told to consider health risks (infection, unclean conditions) and b'tzelem Elokim (human creation in the divine image) and tz'ni'ut (modesty.) We are told we are merely renting our bodies from God.

Edit (July 6th, 2009):

Because this was written quite a few years ago, I'd like to add a little bit to this, since I have changed since then, and so has my views on body piercing and tattooing. I currently have my eight ear piercings- four on each ear lobe. I’m without tattoo- though I have a story to share. I’m in my third- going into my fourth year of college. I finished one program, and want to finish a second before moving to university. I made a friend in my first semester of college, and she and I grew really close. She is the kind of girl with an attitude where she wants to experience all sorts of things before she’s old, and can’t do it anymore. Examples, are her hair. She’s dyed it, and cut it in many different styles, and now she wanted to extend that to something more permanent.
For her 21st birthday, she wanted to get her tongue pierced. She explained how she always wanted one, and now that she was going to be “legal everywhere” her parents couldn’t object- it’s her body, she can do what she wants with it. However, despite this logic, her mother had a say in what she did to her body, and opted to pay for a tattoo instead. So my friend designed a tattoo and had it done. Before this change of mind, though, I was quite disgusted. A tongue piercing? During high school, two girls from my graduating class had their tongues pierced. They wound up removing it years later for whatever reason, but I think it’s because they no longer desired them.

If you research tongue piercings, and read stories written by people who have experienced these types of body modifications, you get mixed results. On one hand, you have people who say: “Yes, it hurt, but I had no complications,” but on the other end of the spectrum, you hear horror stories of how the metal corroded their teeth, or they swallowed their piercing or how it bled so much, or people lost taste, or other terribly events happening by a piece of surgical steel being shot through your soft tongue. It was by doing research and reading these horror stories that made me change my mind years ago about tongue piercings. Your mouth is so dirty: why invite infection?

I told my friend not to do it, it was gross and she should do more research on it. She was defiant and refused to listen, claiming she had a “friend” who has TONS of piercings, and said there’s nothing dangerous about it. I complained to my boyfriend about it, and while complaining and explaining how I used to want a piercing like it so badly, I thought to myself, was I really against it for hygiene reasons, or was I extremely jealous deep down inside? I think part of my reaction was jealousy. She was going to do something I wanted since I was a teenager. But on the other hand, those horror stories and pictures came back to my mind, and I acknowledged my jealousy. But I also acknowledged what I knew was right in the end. A tongue piercing was not for me. I didn’t want to risk something as important as my teeth and have health problems later on because of a piercing.

Tattoos, however, I still have mixed feelings on. I went through my phase with tattoos just like I did with piercings. I thought they were so cool. Totally the cat’s meow and hip and just plain awesome. But… I again started thinking. It’s permanent unless you want to spend cash on removing it. My friend told me when she got hers it hurt a lot. We watch shows on TLC about tattoo parlors, and these people getting inked don’t seem phased by the pain at all. The truth is, it hurts. And if the artist makes a mistake, it’s there forever. Few things to consider with tattooing: a) what to get tattooed, and b) where on your body. My friend’s mother isn’t too pleased with the location of her daughter’s tattoo. She mentioned to me her daughter can’t wear backless articles of clothing, or else it’s right there.
I myself always thought, if I ever got a tattoo, it would be small and personal, and in a place I can cover if I need to. I don’t plan on getting a tattoo anytime soon. And just wanted to state that what I wrote above was Judaism’s views and tolerance on piercings and tattoos. While I don’t encourage people to modify their appearance, I do strongly encourage you do research! You look into different places, and take hygiene and location and reputation into consideration. Don’t just shop for cheap prices, because a cheap price could mean not-sterile equipment, and disease. I strongly encourage people to look at both sides of the fence and weigh the opinions equally, and to speak with their parents or loved ones, since if something with said piercing or tattoo does go wrong, it’s not only your problem anymore. Some websites I wish to point out.

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        07-17-2005     Paula Tsvayg        

You could tell it was a report, and I'm not saying that in a mean way. Uh. a 72? Compuer problems?
like, with writing it or printing it?

        07-13-2005     Nancy Pawley        

Samantha, this was a well written article that I really enjoyed reading. Piercings are not really my cup of tea, as my ears always got infected when I wore earrings, but I do like tattooes...I have a rose on my right ankle.

        07-02-2005     Kat Voletto        

Knowing next to nothing about Jewish culture, I really learned a lot from this. I myself have 2 holes in each ear and a small tattoo on my upper back of 2 kanji. I used to have my belly button done, but took it out. I have a lot of questions about the terminology, but I'll follow from your example... and go research them myself! Very well researched, it's a shame you didn't get more points! Take care and keep up the awesome work. ^_^

        07-01-2005     Anthony Lane Stahlhut        

You seem to have thought about this a lot and a parent couldn't ask for more. I have a tattoo, me and the wife got them for each other,when we were married. I am not a pirate so I don't need my ear pierced. I just never saw the point of the tongue stud, I leave that all to you kids! Your paper was really good, we did not have computers to break down when I was in school, but that would be a good excuse! Thanks for this I feel I know much more after reading your paper! Anthony

        06-29-2005     Debra Rose        

I, personally, am very into tattoos and peircings, and am hoping to one day perhaps become an artist. I like the way that you explained do you go to a Jewish school? I was named in the temple, and when I was younger, I was in classes to learn Hebrew and study the Torah. My father and I left for a more Buddhist path though :) So sorry if I don't express as well of a knowledge of this as most would.

I actually just recently got father doesn't know yet. He still has the very stringent orthodox Jewish belief that is HORRIBLE. I would be disowned...but I'm getting it expanded soon. I think that they're more than just "body decorations", but symbols of faith...stories to explain where you have been. Emotion, strongly felt, and faith, all placed onto your skin to never let you forget the trials and tribulations you have gone through.

Mine is to remind me of an unwavering faith in myself, and to always remember that I am not alone...there is something, God, Allah, Buddah, Yaweh, Jehova, whatever you wish to call It, that is there. :) Sorry for babbeling...I am very very much into tattoos and body mods...I hope to get the implants under my current tats soon that have the minor bumps and spikes, or else the six pointed star of david done on the under side of my'll hurt, but it'll rock :)

You shoulda gotten a better grade on this! And sorry for rambling lol

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