Next time you place judgment on your old Sunday School friend who decided to get inked in college, or find it oxymoronic that your friend’s father has a Jewish star tattooed on his forearm, think again. The New York Times published an article this week on tattooed Jews, playfully titled For Some Jews, It Only Sounds Like ‘Taboo.’
The story blows the lid on a myth that has been incorporated into mainstream culture and allowed decades of parents and grandparents to condemn tattoos with the threat of exclusion from the family burial plot.
Josh Starr, a Maryland resident and a Junior at Stanford University, has always wanted a tattoo but feared religious and familial consequences. “Growing up, my parents always told me that if I got a tattoo I wouldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I guess I just accepted what they told me, I never thought to look into it.” Now that Josh and other young Jewish hipsters have read the article-don’t be surprised if you see more tattooed Jews.
Generations of Jewish children have needlessly feared this form of body art-but why? The Times article quotes a number of rabbis who explain that, like any other longstanding myth, it began with some kernel of truth.
Origins can be traced back to a Torah verse found in Leviticus 19:28, a passage translated differently depending on the source. Biblegateway.com, a commonly used online Bible translation site, translates the passage as: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” The Jewish Study Bible (JPS, 1985) translates, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”
Most surprising is the bible.ort.org translation site that uses the word “tattoo” in its translation: “Do not make any gashes in your skin for the dead / do not make any tattoo marks on your skin. I am god.”
Interpretations of this law varies. Take Ari Bacharach, pictured prominently in the Times article for his tattoo reading “Kosher” above a large pig with a Kosher sign on its hindquarters. This ironic tattoo is now ironic for one less reason than we all originally thought. Tattoos are not, as we always believed, against Jewish law.
Not to worry, you haven’t been missing out on that bacon without reason; that law still stands.