I would say that the Jewish view on Tatoos has not changed significantly with time, unless perhaps there is less of a shock factor involved in general. Most Jews ‘know’ that tattoos are forbidden, and it is not common that Jews hve them. It is not seen as a positive thing to have one, and it is still true that people accept those with tattoos as Jews ‘despite’ the tattoos. There may be some easing of this attitude of late among young people, but it is likely that this is a fad that will die out again.
As for the question of piercings, it is less clear as I understand it. Piercings are not classified in the same category as tattoos, and are not explicitly forbidden. Historically, and in the Tanakh, piercings were mentioned as worn by the Hebrews (the source of the gold for the golden calf was the earrings they wore); there is mention of earrings and nose rings in relation to adornment of women; and slaves that did not wish to be freed at the end of their term of service in the Shemitah (seventh) or Yovel (Jubilee – 50th) years were to receive a ‘piercing’ of their ear using an awl to mark them as in that status.
Nonetheless, the practice of piercings is frowned upon because it is seen (other than ear and nose rings) not as an adornment and enhancement of the human body, but as a desecration of it and of the form of the body which is made ‘in the image’ of G-d. Thus, piercings beyond the somewhat accepted range of one (or perhaps two on each side) pair of earrings, are seen as defacement and desecration by most in the Jewish world, and are not accepted. Similarly to the case with tattoos, if one has piercings, it will not change their status as a Jew, though it most likely will change how others will see and treat them. I doubt that there would be any time that a person with piercings would be denied a Jewish burial. I would point out that the piercings themselves would likely be removed from the body as part of the process that a Chevrah Kadishah (Holy ‘burial’ Society) would perform in preparing the body for burial.
In short, tattoos are taboo, and piercings are problematic. J
Lots of things that “everybody knows” are actually false. This is one of those myths. People often say that you cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery with a tattoo, but it’s just not so. The Torah commands that even condemned criminals must be buried properly after execution. The Torah certainly forbids Jews from getting tattoos (Leviticus 19.28, Shulhan Arukh YD 180). But it also forbids them from eating shrimp, and no one ever suggested refusing burial to those who violate Kashrut.
Body piercings are even less of an issue. Even very traditionalist authorities permit women to have ear piercings as a kind of adornment. As an egalitarian, my principle is that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and men deserve the same rule. (Indeed, the Bible and Talmud record men wearing earrings.) Even if some people find facial piercings surprising or ugly … well, to each his or her own; I cannot imagine why the same permission would not apply to other publically visible body parts. (One might wonder about the wisdom of private piercings, but that’s outside my topic.) But even if piercings are weird, gross, ugly or immodest, they certainly don’t override the biblical command to bury our dead relatives.
Answered by: Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky
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