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How Jewish is Body Piercing?
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

How Jewish is Body Piercing?

by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz *

Body piercing is not a new phenomena. The Bible makes reference to noserings and earrings. In recent years, this ancient art has experienced a revival, and is moving into the mainstream. While pierced ears have long been commonplace, a growing number of people now the pierce noses, navels, nipples, tongues, and even genitalia. What does Halacha have to say about body piercing? (Space limitations preclude discussing other Halachic issues such as honoring parents, concerns about the safety of certain piercing procedures, or a discussion of tattooing, which is specifically prohibited by the Bible).

Jewish law prohibits one from hitting and wounding others. The Talmud (Baba Kama 91b) records a debate whether it is permitted for someone to wound himself. The great majority of medieval authorities accept the opinion that self wounding is forbidden. (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 420:31).

At first glance, this Halacha is perplexing. It seems reasonable to prohibit someone from injuring another person when she protests; that is an breach of another's fundamental rights. However, why would Halacha prohibit self wounding? Rabbi S.Z. Zevin answers (L'Or HaHalacha pages 318-338; cf. Minchat Hinnuch 48) that man is not the master of his own body. God is the one who grants life, and maintains full rights to the human body. "The Lord gives and the Lord takes" is not a mere phrase, but rather a statement of fact: God owns man's body. Consequently, self inflicted wounds and suicide are forbidden, because the human body belongs to God, not man.

The prohibition against self wounding would seem to preclude body piercing. But it isn't that simple. Not all wounding is prohibited. If a doctor needs to operate on someone, the operation is permitted even though the doctor will wound the patient in the process. This is because wounding for therapeutic purposes is allowed. In evaluating the permissibility of body piercing, we must ask the following question: Is wounding for reasons of beauty is allowed?

This question is dealt with by several contemporary Rabbis in their responsa. (The context of these responsa is the permissibility of cosmetic surgery, which evokes similar issues.) Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 11:41) writes that the reason wounding is allowed for therapeutic purposes is because health considerations are so important they outweigh any prohibition against wounding. However, wounding for the sake of beauty is far less important, and would not be allowed. In addition, it is improper to tamper with the body God gave us; it is God's will for us to look the way we look naturally. Obviously, Rabbi Waldenberg would disallow body piercing as well. (Perhaps he would allow pierced ears. This is because there are several opinions that say the prohibition of self wounding does not apply when there is no bleeding.)

Others take a different approach. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe Choshen Mishpat 2:65-66) argues that the reason wounding is allowed for surgery and other therapeutic purposes is because it is intended to benefit the person being wounded. He notes that Maimonides (Chovel U'Mazik 5:1) writes that the prohibition against wounding is only when it is intended to pain and degrade the body. Wounding for the purposes of beauty (e.g., plastic surgery) would be allowed.

Clearly, Halacha takes any wounding of the body, even if they are self inflicted, very seriously. It sees the body as belonging to God, and would prohibit any masochistic behavior. There is even a debate if wounding is allowed for the sake of beauty. If the body piercing is done solely for the sake of beauty, there would be a debate about its permissibility. However, if it is done to associate with a subculture of masochism and self-destruction, it would violate the prohibition against wounding.

Reprinted with permission of Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz


*) Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the spiritual leader of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal, Quebec. He writes a column on Jewish Law for the Canadian Jewish News, and writes a column and hosts an internet Jewish study group for the Microsoft Network. He is a member of the executive board of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Vice President of the Montreal Board of Jewish Ministers, and a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Educational Council of Montreal and Hillel-Jewish Students Center of Montreal. He recieved his ordination from Yeshiva University, where he was a fellow of the Gruss Kollel Elyon. He has a M.A. in Jewish Philosophy from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and a M.A. in Education from Adelphi University.

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