Tag Archives: Isaiah

The 24 Ornaments of a Bride and Tikkun Leil Shavuot

In this week’s parasha, Emor, we read the command to count the days between Pesach and Shavuot. The Torah doesn’t explicitly say why we should do this. The Zohar (III, 97b) comments on the parasha that when the Torah says to count sheva shabbatot temimot (“seven complete [or pure] weeks”) there is a hint in there that we are supposed to become tamim, “pure”.  The point is to purify ourselves over these seven weeks in preparation for the great revelation at Sinai which took place on Shavuot. The Sages always describe the Sinai Revelation as a wedding between God and His people. In fact, the Zohar compares the counting of the seven weeks to a woman’s counting of seven “clean days” following menstruation and before immersing in the mikveh, after which she can reunite with her husband.

On the next page, the Zohar goes on to describe the “wedding”, where God is the “groom” and the Jewish people are the “bride”. The Zohar alludes to an ancient teaching that a bride should be adorned with 24 ornaments on her wedding day. This actually goes back to the Garden of Eden, where God made Eve and adorned her with 24 ornaments before her marriage to Adam. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 18:1) brings Scriptural proof for this, citing Ezekiel 28:13, which says:

You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering: the ruby [odem], the topaz [pitdah], and the diamond [yahalom], the beryl [tarshish], the onyx [shoham], and the jasper [yashfe], the sapphire [sapir], the carbuncle [nofech], and the emerald [varkat or bareket], and gold [zahav]; the workmanship of your settings and of your sockets was in you, in the day that you were created they were prepared.

If we count the precious stones and metals in the verse, we find only ten, not 24. However, one of the minor principles of Torah interpretation is when a general statement is introduced followed by a specific list, the general statement both includes the specific list, and adds to it (כְּלַל וּפְרַט, עָשָׂה אֶת הַכְּלַל מוֹסֶפֶת לַפְּרַט). So, since the verse begins with a general statement (“every precious stone”) and then goes on to list ten precious materials, we actually learn from this that there was a total of twenty precious materials. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish held that one should also add “every precious stone” as a special stone of its own, meaning there were eleven stones, and since we double that, we have a total of 22. Plus, the verse goes on to speak of “your settings and your sockets”, bringing us to a total of 24 ornaments!

Alternatively, there is another Scriptural verse which brings us the 24 ornaments more simply and directly (though without mentioning Eden), listing explicitly what each specific piece of jewellery was. This is Isaiah 3:17-23, which says how the daughters of Zion were adorned with

…the anklets [‘achasim], and the ribbons [shvisim], and the crescents [saharonim]; the pendants [netifot], and the bracelets [sheyrot], and the veils [ra’alot]; the headdresses [pe’erim], and the armlets [tza’adot], and the sashes [kishurim], and the corselettes [batei hanefesh], and the amulets [lehashim]; the rings [taba’ot], and the nose-rings [nizmei ha’af]; the aprons [mahalatzot], and the shawls [ma’atafot], and the hair-coverings [mitpachot], and the girdles [charitim]; and the robes [gilyonim], and the fine linen [sadinim], and the headscarves [tzenifot], and the mantles [redimim]…

A count of these brings us 21. In addition, the verse that follows speaks of perfume [bosem], a belt [chagorah], and hair curls [petigil], giving us a total of 24 ornaments.

Elijah confronts the priests on Mount Carmel

Kabbalistically, these 24 ornaments have tremendous meaning. The sefirah of Chessed, which represents love and kindness, has three inner states, each of which is made up of 24 parts. (The gematria of Chessed [חסד] is 72, and dividing that number by three gives us 24.) This is why Eliyahu poured an extra three measures of water (water being Chessed) on his altar when he went head-to-head with the idolatrous priests (see I Kings 18). The altar which he built was actually made up of precious stones, too (I Kings 18:31-32), and then he had water poured from a jug called a kad (18:34). The gematria of kad (כד) is, as we might expect, 24.

That word is the exact same used when the Torah introduces Rebecca: “And it came to pass, before [Eliezer] had done speaking, that, behold, Rebecca came out… with her jug [kadah] upon her shoulder.” (Genesis 24:15). Kabbalistically, Rebecca is the embodiment of Chessed (see Zohar I, 137a) and she graciously provides water for Eliezer and all of his camels. Eliezer realizes that she is the perfect one for Isaac, and immediately proceeds to adorn her with all kinds of jewellery: “And it came to pass, as the camels had done drinking, that the man took a golden nose-ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands, of ten shekels weight of gold…” (Genesis 24:22) After the marriage was arranged, Eliezer gave the soon-to-be bride even more jewellery: “And the servant brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebecca…”

If one looks carefully at these verses in Genesis 24 (not a coincidental number), and applies the classic rules of interpretation, they will find that Eliezer also brought for Rebecca 24 ornaments in preparation for her wedding! Rebecca went on to marry Isaac, and they had the purest love of all the forefathers and figures in the Torah. In fact, the first time that the Torah describes a husband loving his wife is with Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 24:67). This is one reason why there was an old custom to adorn a Jewish bride with 24 ornaments. Alternatively, a husband may fulfil this special segulah by purchasing 24 adornments or pieces of jewellery for his wife—not necessarily all at once! (It is especially good to get white gold, since it is symbolic of Chessed, while yellow gold is the opposite, Gevurah.)

24 Ornaments of the Jewish People

If a bride is adorned with 24 ornaments, and the Jewish people were God’s “bride” at Sinai on Shavuot, what were our 24 ornaments? The Kabbalists teach us that these are the 24 books of the Tanakh! The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343, on Exodus 31:18) comments that every Torah scholar is adorned with these 24 books just as a bride is adorned with 24 ornaments. And this is why, the Zohar states, one should stay up all night on Shavuot and study Torah, especially the 24 books of the Tanakh (Zohar I, 8a; though in Zohar III, 98a there is an alternate suggestion to study the Oral Torah at night and the Tanakh in the day). In so doing, one is spiritually adorning himself in preparation for the wedding (as well as adorning the Shekhinah herself).

Today, it has become the norm in all synagogues and yeshivas around the world for everyone to stay up all night and learn Torah, as the Zohar instructs. This practice was initially popularized by the kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century. The earliest reference to a tikkun leil Shavuot, a fixed text of study for the night of Shavuot, comes from a letter of Rabbi Shlomo HaLevy Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576), most famous for composing Lecha Dodi. He was born to a Sephardic family in Thessaloniki, or Salonica (then in the Ottoman Empire, now the second largest city in Greece).

In 1533, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) settled in Salonica (he was born in Toledo, Spain before the Expulsion), and the two became close. One Shavuot night, they stayed up together studying Torah as the Zohar states. (In addition to Tanakh, they learned a little bit of Mishnah). Suddenly, the Shekhinah filled Rabbi Karo and spoke out of his mouth! Such revelations would continue for most of his life, and are recorded in his book, Maggid Mesharim. On that Shavuot night, the Shekhinah revealed many secrets and instructions. Among other things, She instructed the pair to move to Israel. In 1535, they did so and settled in Tzfat, the centre of Jewish mysticism.

In Tzfat, the pair would meet the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570), who later married the sister of Rabbi Alkabetz. When he was twenty years old, the Ramak heard a Heavenly Voice instructing him to seek out Rabbi Alkabetz and learn Kabbalah with him. He did so, and went on to become the preeminent Kabbalist of Tzfat. He was succeeded in the position by the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572).

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) went on to publish the Shulchan Arukh, still the central code of Jewish Law. Interestingly, he did not write anything about a tikkun leil Shavuot in the Code. He believed that it was a practice for Jewish mystics, not for the average Jew. Nonetheless, the custom spread very quickly, first in Tzfat, then across all of Israel. When the Shelah HaKadosh (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, 1555-1630), who was born in Prague, moved to Israel in 1626 he wrote how all the Jews living in the Holy Land stay up all night on Shavuot. The Shelah put together a text of study of his own for the night of Shavuot. In addition to portions from the 24 books of the Tanakh, he added the first and last verse of every Mishnaic tractate, and the first and last verse of Sefer Yetzirah, along with the Zohar passage from this week’s parasha with which we began, and a recitation of the 613 mitzvot.

In the ensuing centuries, the custom spread further across the entire Jewish world. Various other tikkun texts have arisen over that time. Today, it is normal for many synagogues not to follow any tikkun at all, but simply to have lectures on different topics by multiple speakers, or to learn whatever Torah text people wish, and this is appropriate as well. Having said that, the original Kabbalistic way—as suggested in the Zohar, practiced by the early Tzfat mystics, and affixed by the Arizal—is to study specific portions from the 24 books of the Tanakh, together with mystical commentaries on them. (This is the version we used in our Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which has the proper text of study in both Hebrew and English, along with commentaries from the Zohar and Arizal.)

Rectifying Sinai and Purifying Our Souls

On a simple level, the word tikkun may refer to a “fixed” text of Torah, such as that which a ba’al kore uses to study the weekly parasha before reading it publicly in the synagogue. On a mystical level, “tikkun” refers to a spiritual rectification. When it comes to tikkun leil Shavuot, it is commonly taught that staying up all night in study is a spiritual rectification for what happened at Sinai over three millennia ago. At that time, the people had fallen asleep before God’s great revelation. Though some say they slept so that they would have energy to witness the tremendous event, others state that they were wrong to fall asleep so casually the night before the biggest day of their lives. Would a bride sleep so soundly the night before her wedding? Therefore, when we stay up all night on Shavuot, we are spiritually rectifying the mistake that the Jewish people made.

If we delve a little deeper, we might find an even greater tikkun on the night of Shavuot. The Talmud (Shabbat 146a) tells us: “When the Serpent came upon Eve, it infused in her a spiritual contamination [zuhama]. When Israel stood at Mount Sinai, the zuhama was removed.” Eve was the first to be decorated with 24 ornaments in the Garden of Eden, but then fell from grace and was spiritually contaminated. In a cosmic rectification, the Jewish people were “decorated” with 24 books of the Tanakh on Shavuot, and that impurity was removed. Each year since, we have a tremendous opportunity to cleanse ourselves of our own spiritual impurities on this special night, by immersing ourselves in the purifying words of our holy books.

20 Things That Will Happen When Mashiach Comes

This week’s parasha, Vayikra, begins the third book of the Torah. The parasha is unique in that it is only one of two parashas (along with next week’s Tzav) where the word Mashiach appears. All four cases of the word in the Torah refer to the anointed High Priest, not to the messiah at the End of Days. Nonetheless, on a deeper level it certainly is alluding to the messiah of the End of Days. All the verses in question deal with the anointed High Priest (“HaKohen HaMashiach”) atoning for sins—both his own and the people’s—and purifying his nation. Indeed, one of the roles of Mashiach will be to prepare Israel for that final purification at the End of Days. This includes identifying one last Red Cow to produce those special waters which alone are capable of removing the impurity of death.

The early Christians saw these verses as allusions to their purported saviour, Jesus. In one place, for example, they wrote:

the Law [ie. the Torah] made those high priests who had infirmity, and who needed daily to offer up sacrifices, first for their own sins, and then for the people’s; but our high priest, Christ Jesus, was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens. (Hebrews 7:27-28)

For the Christians, Jesus was the ultimate anointed high priest. Yet, Jesus accomplished essentially nothing of what Mashiach is supposed to. This was perhaps best explained in the 16th century by Isaac ben Abraham of Troki (1533-1594). He was a Karaite Jew, and a renowned Karaite scholar. His magnum opus was a book called Hizzuk Emunah, “Strengthening of Faith”, written to debunk Christianity, silence missionaries, and convince Jews to remain Jewish. The book was so popular that it spread like wildfire, not just among Karaites but all Jews, and even Christians. In fact, it played an important role in the start of the Enlightenment, leading countless Christians to abandon their faith. One of these was the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), who called the Latin translation of Hizzuk Emunah (first published in 1681) a “masterpiece”.

Because it was a Karaite text, traditional rabbis were wary of consulting it. The great Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (Manoel Dias Soeiro, 1604-1657), who opened the first Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam in 1626, ultimately refused to print it. Still, Abba Hillel Silver, in his A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel (pg. 225), points out how Troki’s text borrowed from earlier Rabbinic texts, including Mashmia Yeshua, “Announcing Salvation”, of Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508).

Silver goes on to summarize the sixth chapter of Troki’s Hizzuk Emunah, which includes a list of twenty clear prophecies in Scripture that must be fulfilled upon the coming of Mashiach—none of which were fulfilled by Jesus (thereby necessitating for Christians some future “second coming” yet to materialize after nearly two millennia). Briefly going over these twenty events is enlightening both as a reminder for why Jesus could not be the messiah, and for what to expect when the true Mashiach does come.

Living Waters and Dead Waters

‘Israelis – The Ingathering of the Exiles’ by Saul Raskin (1878-1966)

The first prophecy is the return of the Lost Tribes of Israel. In ancient times, following the reign of King Solomon, the Twelve Tribes of Israel split into two kingdoms: the southern Judah and the northern Israel (or Ephraim). The more sinful northern kingdom was eventually overrun by the Assyrians, who exiled its tribes. These are sometimes referred to as the Ten Lost Tribes. It should be noted, though, that they weren’t necessarily ten tribes, nor were the tribes completely expunged. In reality, there were many Benjaminites, Simeonites, and Levites already living inside the Kingdom of Judah, and members of all the northern tribes fled to Judah when the northern kingdom was destroyed.

What happened was that all the tribes eventually assimilated into the larger, ruling tribe of Judah. Over time, the tribes lost knowledge of their lineage, and today everyone is simply a Yehudi, a Judahite, or Jew. (Levites, because of their unique role, retain knowledge of their ancestry). One of the prophesied events of the End of Days is that the identity of the Lost Tribes will once more be known. Though this idea is much more developed in later Rabbinic literature, it comes from numerous places in Scripture. Troki chooses to use Ezekiel 37:15-22:

And the word of God came to me, saying: “And you, son of man, take one stick, and write upon it: For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions; then take another stick, and write upon it: For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and of all the house of Israel his companions; and join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand… And say to them: ‘Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land…’”

Related to this is the second great prophecy, that of Gog u’Magog. This refers to the great world war at the End of Days, described in detail in Ezekiel 38, among other places. During the course of this war, Zechariah 14:4 states that the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem will be split in half. Then, new “living waters” will go out of Jerusalem to make Israel flourish (Zechariah 14:8).

Bab-el-Mandeb Strait (Credit: Skilla1st)

Meanwhile, Isaiah 11:15 states that God “will utterly destroy the tongue of the Egyptian Sea; and with His scorching wind will He shake His hand over the River, and will smite it into seven streams, and cause men to march over dry-shod.” The identity of the “Egyptian Sea” and the “River” is unclear, though Silver has it as the Red Sea and the Euphrates. On the possibility of the Red Sea drying up, we know today from geological records that the Red Sea had once (and possibly more than once) become a dry chunk of land due to the narrow and shallow Bab-el-Mandeb closing up.

As for the “River”, in context it would make more sense if it referred to the Nile, the lifeline of Egypt. Today, we are indeed seeing the Nile drying up rapidly, and the Washington Post recently reported that the Nile Delta is losing as much as 20 metres per year in some areas. With this in mind, when Isaiah prophesies that the “tongue of the Egyptian Sea” will be destroyed, it may be referring to the Nile Delta, which opens up into the Egyptian Mediterranean, ie. the “Egyptian Sea”. The Post article is quite an accurate realization of Isaiah’s prophecy, with images of men that “march over dry-shod”.

(Having said that, the Euphrates River isn’t doing much better than the Nile, so whether Isaiah meant the Nile or the Euphrates is irrelevant in light of the mass devastation that has plagued both rivers.)

A Renewed Jerusalem

The sixth prophecy in Troki’s list is also from Zechariah (8:23):

Thus said the Lord of Hosts: “In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold, out of all the languages of the nations, shall take hold of the garment of him that is a Jew, saying: We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”

The tremendous anti-Semitism that Jews have experienced throughout history, into the present day, will finally end. The nations will be at peace with the Jews, and wish to learn from them. This is related to another prophecy: that gentiles from all over the world will come to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel on every Rosh Chodesh and every Shabbat (Isaiah 66:20-23):

“…upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts, to My holy mountain Jerusalem,” said God, “as the children of Israel bring their offering in a clean vessel into the house of God. And of them also will I take for the priests and for the Levites,” said God. “For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before Me,” said God, “so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me, said God.

The gentiles—“all flesh”—will come to Jerusalem, upon every kind of transport. One of these is a rekhev, “chariot” in ancient Hebrew, and “vehicle” in Modern Hebrew. Another two of the transports are unique words that aren’t found elsewhere in Scripture and are impossible to translate: a tzab, and a kirkar. It is possible that the former refers to some kind of slow transport (as the word is written the same as that for a “turtle”) while the latter conversely refers to a very fast form of transport. In our day and age we have no shortage of either.

Troki lists separately a related prophecy from Zechariah (14:16): “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations that came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.” Once a year, during the holiday of Sukkot, those nations that warred against Israel at the End of Days will come to Jerusalem to worship. The fact that it must be during Sukkot is no coincidence, for it is during Sukkot that our Sages say the offerings in the Temple atone for all the gentiles. This is why the Torah requires seventy bulls to be offered over the course of the holiday, corresponding to the seventy root nations of the world.

A Renewed World

If all the nations are coming to worship the God of Israel in Jerusalem, there is certainly no need for any “idols… false prophets… and unclean spirits” which God will entirely “cut off” (Zechariah 13:2). Zechariah further adds: “And God [YHWH] shall be King over all the earth; in that day God shall be One, and His name one.” (14:9) There will be world peace (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3), which will be ensured and enforced by Israel, to whom all the kings and nations will listen (Isaiah 60:10-12, Daniel 7:27). Even the animals will be at peace with each other, as Isaiah (11:6-8) famously writes:

And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox…

On that last prophecy there is an interesting debate. Will the animals miraculously stop fighting and consuming one another? Or, is the prophecy only metaphorical and the natural order will remain? The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) held by the latter. Silver translates here that peace will be “between wild and domestic animals”. When reading Isaiah’s verses, this makes perfect sense: a wolf with a lamb, a leopard with a goat; calf and lion, cow and bear. So perhaps what Isaiah meant is that farmers and ranchers will no longer have to worry about wild animals devouring their livestock—once a common, and particularly disturbing, problem. (Or maybe there will be no need to raise livestock at all, for we are now at the dawn of the synthetic meat revolution.)

Israel will finally be completely righteous and free of sin (Deuteronomy 30:6, Isaiah 60:21, Ezekiel 36:25), and lead the rest of the world in doing the same (Jeremiah 3:17). There will no longer be any kind of suffering or sorrow in Israel, for the prophet said “the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying” (Isaiah 65:19).

‘Going Up To The Third Temple’ by Ofer Yom Tov

Finally, the prophet Eliyahu will return (Micah 3:24), and the Temple will be rebuilt (Ezekiel 40-45). The Shekhinah will return to Israel (Ezekiel 37:26), as will the ability to prophecy (Jeremiah 31:32-33), and there will be great knowledge in the world (Isaiah 11:9). The Holy Land will be redistributed among the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Ezekiel 47:13). Lastly, at the very end, will come the long-awaited Resurrection of the Dead (Daniel 12:2).

To summarize:

  1. Return of the Lost Tribes
  2. Gog u’Magog
  3. Mount of Olives splitting
  4. Egyptian Sea and River destroyed
  5. Living waters emerge from Jerusalem
  6. Gentiles declaring to Jews “we will go with you”
  7. Israel’s former enemies coming to Jerusalem each year on Sukkot
  8. Gentile pilgrims coming to Jerusalem to worship on the new moons and Sabbaths
  9. Destruction of all idols, false prophets, and unclean spirits
  10. One religion around the world, and recognition of one God
  11. Israel’s recognized leadership on the international stage
  12. World peace
  13. Peace between wild and domesticated animals
  14. A sinless Israel and a sinless world
  15. No more suffering or sorrow in the Land of Israel and for the Jewish people
  16. Shekhinah and prophecy return
  17. Eliyahu reappears
  18. Rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem
  19. Redistribution of the Holy Land among the restored Twelve Tribes
  20. Resurrection of the Dead

Are Tattoos Really Forbidden?

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we read: “You are children of Hashem, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.” Here, the Torah repeats the prohibition of extreme mourning for the dead, which includes making cuts in one’s flesh or tearing out one’s hair in grief. The parallel passage in Leviticus 19:28 states “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you, I am Hashem.” The Mishnah (Makkot 3:6) elaborates on these verses that there are two forms of cutting: one is an incision alone, and the other is an incision with ink, ie. a tattoo.

The Torah’s prohibition in Re’eh makes it clear that it is forbidden to make any cuttings in the flesh for the dead. In Leviticus (parashat Kedoshim), however, cutting in the flesh is juxtaposed with tattooing (ketovet ka’aka’a). More accurately, Leviticus uses the term “scratches” (seret) instead of “cutting”, which implies making shallow incisions that don’t necessarily result in deep wounds or profuse bleeding. This is not referring to cutting one’s self in grief, but a slightly different case where a person might incise or scratch the name of the deceased into their flesh, resulting in a permanent scar that bear’s the deceased’s name. The Mishnah concludes by stating that “If he writes without imprinting, or he imprints without writing, he is not liable for lashes, until he writes and imprints with ink or pigment or anything that leaves an impression.” Thus, while cutting deep wounds for the dead is forbidden, a person who only scratches (literally “writes”) into their skin leaving a faint scar has not sinned, unless they scratched with ink to leave a very clear impression.

Conversely, a person who uses ink alone, without any scratches or incisions, has not sinned either. So, there is little to worry about if your children come home with those temporary sticker-like “tattoos” that are rubbed onto the skin with some water. Neither is there a problem with things like henna.

Having said that, the Mishnah does not end with the words quoted above. It continues to state a teaching in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “He is not liable until he writes a name there, as it says: ‘… nor imprint any marks upon you, I am Hashem.’” The Talmud (Makkot 21a) asks what Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai meant by this: Did he mean it is forbidden to write a Name of God, since the verse says “I am Hashem”? Or, did he mean that it is forbidden to write the name of an idolatrous deity, and it says “I am Hashem” to remind us that there is only One God?

The Sages conclude that Rashbi meant it is forbidden only to write the name of an idol or false deity. Does that, then, imply it is permissible to tattoo God’s Name? Interestingly, it has been pointed out that Isaiah 44:5 might refer to such a tattoo: “One shall say: ‘I am to Hashem’, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob, and another shall write his hand to Hashem…” What does this last phrase—yikhtov yado l’Hashem—mean? The verb used (likhtov) is the same as that in Leviticus and in the Mishnah’s discussion of tattoos. Does this suggest that in Isaiah’s time people did have “holy tattoos” on their arms?

Holy Tattoos

The suggestion that Jews may have had “kosher” tattoos seems quite unlikely. The verse in Isaiah makes no reference to a ka’aka’a or seret, or even gadad (the root used in parashat Re’eh). Perhaps a better interpretation is that it refers to tefillin, whose writings are bound upon the arm. Besides, Isaiah is not speaking of his own time at all, but prophesying to a distant future when the righteous shall “spring up among the grass” (44:4).

Whatever the case, the Mishnah holds that tattoos are only forbidden when bearing a name. It appears that tattooing for other reasons, including decorative ones, is not forbidden. Indeed, the Torah’s prohibition is only stated with regards to mourning the dead. This would forbid, for example, tattooing the name of one’s beloved that has passed away—something quite common today, and clearly in ancient times, too. If the tattoo is not associated with idolatry or mourning, there is technically no Scriptural or Talmudic basis for forbidding it.

The popular belief that a Jew who has a tattoo will not be buried in a Jewish cemetery is entirely untrue. Some say it began with one particular cemetery that refused people with tattoos to be buried there. Rabbi Gutman Locks proposed that it came from the need to identify dead bodies: if a corpse had a tattoo, it was assumed that the person wasn’t Jewish, so they were buried in a non-Jewish cemetery. Either way, it became a useful tool for fearful parents who tried to discourage their children from getting inked. The fear is justified, for Jewish tradition has always strongly frowned upon tattooing. Despite the fact that our ancient holy texts do not expressly forbid it, avoiding tattoos has become a firm Jewish custom accepted by all communities.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), in his authoritative Mishneh Torah, records the prohibition as law (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 12:11). He argues that tattooing is a practice of idolaters, invented by idolaters, for idolaters, and tattoos generally symbolize a mark of submission to some false deity. Since the Torah is so adamant about staying away from anything that is even remotely connected to idolatry, tattoos should be completely forbidden—even if the tattoo bears a holy Name of God or a verse from the Torah.

Today, there aren’t a lack of people who sport such tattoos. While the faith of such people is commendable, using a tattoo to express that faith is ironically inappropriate since Jewish law forbids tattooing! If these people feel like Isaiah 44:5 is a Scriptural support for them, perhaps they should, instead, be more scrupulous with the mitzvah of tefillin, which may be a more fitting interpretation of that verse. After all, tefillin is a mark of devotion to Hashem, symbolizing a Jew’s dedication of mind, heart, and action towards the service of God. Just as the Rambam says a tattoo was meant to be a mark of devotion and submission to an idol, a Jew’s tefillin serves the same purpose with regards to Hashem. The only inked skin that a Jew needs is the dyed leather of tefillin.

And there are a handful of other good reasons to avoid tattoos, too.

“Jewish Tattoos” (Credit: tattoo-journal.com)

Physical and Spiritual Health

Firstly, tattoos are a health issue. Other than the pain of the procedure itself, injecting pigments can cause allergic reactions and itchy rashes. For some people, the itchiness can persist for years. Infections are relatively common, too, with hepatitis B and C being a particular issue, as well as less serious bacterial infections. Studies show that as many as 6% of people get an infection following tattooing. Tattoos can also be problematic if a person needs an MRI in the future. The strong magnets can shift the metals in the ink and cause pain or swelling. They sometimes distort the MRI image, too. Finally, tattoo inks can be toxic, and have been linked to cancer.

To be fair, some people do experience a positive mental or emotional boost from getting a tattoo. These “mental health tattoos” can be a good thing, and even bring a person out of a depressive state. However, there are undoubtedly much better ways to treat depression and mental health issues than getting a tattoo.

On a spiritual level, tattoos are an even bigger issue. As we saw above, tattooing was associated with idolatry. It was also associated with slavery, where a master would brand his servant with a mark of ownership. This is still happening today, especially in prostitution rings, where pimps often have their logos tattooed on their “property”. Cattle and other animals are also generally branded with tattoos. Of course, no one could forget the Jews that were tattooed with a number in the Holocaust. This alone should make a Jew cringe and stay away from ink. (It should be noted here that a person who is tattooed against their will is not culpable in any way, and bearing the tattoo is certainly not a sin—as the Rambam makes explicitly clear in the same passage cited above.)

Then there’s the issue of modesty. Jews are expected to uphold the highest standards of modesty, and there are few places on the body where a tattoo would even be visible to the public. Tattoos tend to be placed in areas that shouldn’t be exposed to begin with—which, in many cases, goes to show the real motivation for getting one. Tattoos are often just a means of attracting attention. Other people, meanwhile, have so many tattoos that the reasoning could be the exact opposite: It has been said that in a world where people are less and less covered by clothes, they subconsciously seek other means to hide their skin. In a strange inversion of modesty, there are those who hide behind their tattoos.

But for many people, a tattoo is done on a whim, or in one’s youth, or without too much forethought. The result is that about a third of people who get a tattoo end up regretting it, and about half of those seek expensive tattoo removal procedures. It is therefore better to stay away from tattoos entirely.

And lastly, it is important to keep in mind that the Mishnah states it isn’t just forbidden to get a tattoo, but also to tattoo “the flesh of one’s fellow”. The act of tattooing itself is problematic, and therefore, “tattoo artist” is not a kosher profession for any Jew.