You shall not place a cut for the dead in your flesh, and a tattoo you
shall not place upon yourselves. I am Hashem.
Cutting the flesh and tattooing are not forbidden by the Torah. Despite
what our pesukim seem to say, the preceding sentence is perfectly defensible.
Were it the act of cutting the flesh as a sign of mourning for a loved one,
the Torah would have expressed itself differently. If making a permanent
mark or tattoo on the body were an objectionable act, if this were
considered an affront to some assumed sanctity of the human body, the Torah
would have used a different verb to describe the prohibition. In both cases
mentioned in our pasuk, verb forms exist that could better pinpoint the
activity that is objectionable and forbidden.
In both cases, though, the Torah expresses the prohibition as a forbidden
nesinah, or “placing.” You shall not place a cut…you shall not place a
tattoo. The Torah does not prohibit the cutting and tattooing per se, so
much as having that cut or tattoo remain in place as a statement to the rest
of the world.
In the case of the flesh-cutting for the dead, we are looking here at
something similar to the tearing of a garment as a sign of mourning, which
not only is not objectionable, but is a commanded part of our mourning
procedure. Our clothes are physically the closest things to our own bodies.
When we lose a dear relative, we acknowledge that our personal world has
sustained a breach. Its material has been torn. Its wholeness has been
disturbed; where it all came together, there is now a jagged edge and a gap
filled with emptiness.
Such a statement of loss is both poetic and appropriate. The Torah teaches,
however, that it becomes excessive when we apply it to our bodies, to our
very selves. Placing that cut on our persons conveys the idea that it is not
just our personal worlds that have become darkened and insufficient, but our
very lives. Wearing that cut upon ourselves expresses the thought that the
passing of someone dear to us leaves us forever lacking and incomplete.
This is almost sacrilegious. We should never doubt the value of our own
existence. First of all, our existence is not ours to savor as we please.
All that we have belongs to Him, and we are to employ it all in His service.
We cannot excuse any part of it from that service, by declaring it
non-functional, by insisting that its vital force has been so drawn out of
it, that it is for all intents and purpose a ghost of its previous self.
Secondly, He is not arbitrary. Each person has his place, his function. Each
has his unique value to Him. The death of one individual should not lead to
despair and lethargy in a survivor. To the contrary, belief in a G-d Who is
purposeful and deliberate demands that we understand the loss of any human
being as a loss to the world – and therefore demands that we who live on
must work harder to compensate for the loss, rather than retire to brooding
The gemara sees an organic relationship between lacerating oneself as a
sign of mourning, and doing so as an idolatrous devotion, such as the
priests of Baal did. (“They gashed themselves as was their practice with
swords and spears.” ) This opens us up to the possibility that one of the
Torah’s objectives in prohibiting the mourning-cut is to firmly oppose the
pagan world’s attitude towards death. Ancient idolaters saw Death as an
independent power that delighted in draining life from the living. Human
beings were essentially powerless in all their interactions with the gods.
Human success or failure in dealing with them was contingent on winning
their favor by appeasing them. You won their approval or at least their
benign tolerance by paying homage to them. When a survivor contemplated the
death of someone close to him, his best form of protection was to
acknowledge the terrible power of Death by paying tribute to it. The
self-mutilation was that tribute; through it, a person hoped to avoid the
The Torah, of course, knows of no independent power of death that seeks to
quash life. The Torah knows of no independent power outside of G-d, period.
Both life and death owe equally to Hashem and to nothing else. As hard as it
may be for creatures of flesh and blood to emotionally comprehend, life and
its opposite both flow from the goodness of the One G-d who celebrates life
and love. It follows that sacrificing a life – or even a small fraction of
one – in recognition of the death of another can never pay homage to Hashem.
To the contrary, any statement of profound, irrevocable loss borders on
blasphemy. The same G-d who decreed the death of one person decreed that the
survivors remain alive. Life means that He has expectation invested in us.
To deny that we remain capable of living fully is nothing less than a
repudiation of Him and His plans for us!
The tattooing prohibition also highlights the difference between idolatrous
belief and the true faith. The gemara’s discussion makes it clear that
the starting point of the prohibition is etching into one’s skin the name of
another deity. Here, too, the Torah speaks in terms of placing the mark on
oneself, rather than the act of tattooing. Placing such a name on one’s
flesh is a sign of subservience and devotion. This part of the prohibition
The majority opinion in the gemara, however, holds that the prohibition
applies equally to all inscriptions. The Torah extends the basic prohibition
to include much more than the names of foreign gods. It follows that
tattooing Hashem’s Name on one’s flesh is equally prohibited! What could be
objectionable about a person displaying his devotion to his Creator by
proudly dedicating his very body to His service?
Here is where the Torah point of view once again stands all other
assumptions on their head. In other faiths, people make a decision to join
the faith-group and devote their energies to its goals. Until you make that
decision, you are an outsider. Torah Judaism does not see our service of
Hakadosh Baruch Hu as a matter of preference or choice. Human beings are
obligated in His service because they are created in His image. They need no
other reminder of their obligation. Any external sign etched on to the body
created in His image gives the false impression that entering into His
service is a matter of choice, rather than inherent in the human condition.
Both of the prohibitions we have considered – cutting the flesh and
tattooing – are similar. Each begins with a rejection of the mistaken
notions of paganism, but ultimately go well beyond that. They lead to
recognition of the proper relationship we maintain with HKBH, far away from
the debased subservience to dark forces that remains part of contemporary
life, centuries after the old gods disappeared from Western consciousness.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Vayikra 19:28
2. Makos 21A
3. Melachim I 18:28
4. Makos, ibid.
5. See Ritva s.v. Rebbi Shimon
6. Rav Hirsch does not pause here to consider bris milah, which midrashim
understand as indeed providing a reminder of a Jew’s subservience to Hashem.
Rav Hirsch’s commentary to Bereishis, however, makes it clear that he
believes that bris milah says much more than that, and therefore does not
conflict with the thesis he develops here.