The command is clear in this passage to not pierce one's body for the dead. The slaves were to be pierced by their master upon choosing to stay with them rather than going free (Exodus 21:2-6); therefore, it seems clear that the command does not forbid all piercing, but only piercing for the dead.

In regard to tattooing, however, the English does not connect the command not to tattoo with "for the dead" in any way. I read the other post pertaining to this passage and though it is insightful, it does not pertain to my question, that being:

Grammatically, is there a connection in the Hebrew between the command forbidding to tattoo and "for the dead?"

  • 1
    An interesting aside: in speaking with a tatoo artist about this passage he informed me that many, if not most, tattoos are done in regard to the dead.
    – user2027
    Aug 13, 2014 at 15:35

4 Answers 4


We find even within scripture that there existed a heathen practice of cutting the flesh as part of an attempt to appeal to the gods, a kind of unholy sacrifice if you will.

So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. (NIV 1 Kings 18:28)

There are other references to cuttings ones hair and beard in certain shapes and tattooing in this verse you mention that are within the same context.

“‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard. “‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord. (NIV, Leviticus 19:27-28)

It is a reasonable rule of exegesis that once a context is established we assume it continues as a context to be used until there is a clear break into a new context. Therefore contextually I would argue that the reference to tattooing is also so as 'not to be like those' who do these things as part of their idolatry worship and ceremonies. Cutting your beard, possibly so that your hair and facial hair is round like the sun, is bad in the context of say 'Sun worship', but clipping your beard outside of this context does not have a direct scriptural reference opposed to it. In the same way, if we are trying to find out if tattooing as a fashion, unrelated to idolatry, is right or wrong, I do not think this verse gives us any direct guidance. By ignoring context we would be potentially spinning our 'Bible roulette wheel' to see where it lands almost superstitiously.

Note: I have no tattoos nor does anyone in my family. I am answering from what I think the textual considerations should be. I personally dislike tattoos but not upon any direct religious ground.

related post: Pagan hairstyle forbidden in Leviticus 19, who had it?


וְשֶׂ֣רֶט לָנֶ֗פֶשׁ לֹ֤א תִתְּנוּ֙ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וּכְתֹ֣בֶת קַֽעֲקַ֔ע לֹ֥א תִתְּנ֖וּ בָּכֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה

Grammatically speaking, "the dead" isn't even mentioned in the original Hebrew text. It was simply "the soul." In Hebraic thought, the soul is the unified body and spirit. The soul can be dead, or the soul can be alive. The text doesn't say one way or the other. But the word commonly rendered as "for the dead" is grammatically connected with the word commonly rendered as "cutting." These two words are שרט לנפש.

The word שרט /'seh-ret/ is simply some type of mark made by cutting. This could even be a tattoo, where a needle is used prick the skin to deposit ink. Strong even lists tattoo among the definitions for this word in his lexicon.

The word לנפש /law-'neh-fesh/ actually refers to a soul, alive or dead it doesn't say. The preposition ל is applied to this word; it could be any of: to, of, for, in accordance with, etc.

The remainder, לא תתנו בבשרכם /lo 'tit-nu bev-sar-'chem/, is as you would expect: put not on your flesh.

This might prohibit the mark of a(nother) person, such as a branding, or simply a mark to the person, even as in a self-inflicted mark.

The word כתבת /ch-'to-vet/ refers to something written.

The word קעקע /qaw-a-'qaw/ has a remarkably similar definition to שרט. Again, Strong lists many definitions for this word, including tattoo. While we see examples of every other word here in other scriptural passages, this particular word only appears once in the scriptures. That leaves some questions, naturally.

And the remainder, לא תתנו בכם /lo 'tit-nu baw-'chem/, is a slightly altered version of the former, leaving out flesh: do not put on you.

Taking into account the above, we might have something more like the following:

And a mark to the soul do not put on your flesh. And a writing of a mark do not put on you. I am the LORD.

The second part is interesting, not only because the word for mark here does not appear elsewhere in the scriptures, but because of the process used to tattoo. Even today, a sketch (writing) is made on the skin, and then the skin is cut, scratched, or pricked, with a needle.

The preceding chapter begins specifically with the notion that what is to follow are prohibited because they are the doings of a pagan land. At the beginning of Leviticus 19, however, the LORD spoke to Moses telling him to address the children of Israel, that they shall be holy. The passage in verse 28 could be prohibiting something that is unholy, and not necessarily because of its pagan origin or connection. It could be an outright prohibition on markings on the flesh, or a specific type of marking common in that time.

Here are some interesting publications on the issue that focus specifically on the Hebrew words:

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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! We're a little different from other sites. This is a good answer, but please don't use link-shortening services when posting links here. It makes us think there might be spam hiding in the post ;) - I've taken the liberty of fixing these for you this time.
    – Dan
    Dec 11, 2013 at 1:21

It's a great question, and the truth is that the sentence is fairly ambiguous despite attempts to translate it otherwise (as in the ChaBaD translation brought in @crownjewel82's answer).

Here's the verse - note that the closest we get to punctuation are the cantillation marks, which have a zaqef qaton (a minor disjunctive, like a comma or semicolon) at the end of the first clause:

וְשֶׂ֣רֶט לָנֶ֗פֶשׁ לֹ֤א תִתְּנוּ֙ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וּכְתֹ֣בֶת קַֽעֲקַ֔ע לֹ֥א תִתְּנ֖וּ בָּכֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

I would say a more literal translation would be something like:

An engraving for the dead: do not make one in your flesh, and do not make a tattooed inscription for yourself; I am the L!RD.

Later rabbinic commentary argues about the exact parameters of this verse but does eventually settle on identifying this with various forms of bodily modification. But yes, in the Biblical context, it would appear that this commandment is linked with fears around imitating Canaanite mourning practices (whether they indeed practiced all or any of the things the Bible attributes to them is another question).

  • ha! i just posted as you were, +1
    – Mike
    Sep 27, 2013 at 12:34

The translation from chabad.org makes things a bit clearer. The Hebrew text is available there as is a commentary on the text.

You shall not make cuts in your flesh for a person [who died]. You shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves. I am the Lord.

It's easy to see that there are two separate sentences containing two distinct commands. The first is about not participating in pagan rituals and the second is about tattoos. Actually, it's interpreted to mean any kind of permanent mark. The ear piercing is different because it's in the lobe and piercings in the lobe can heal.

  • This is a disingenuous translation (as to be expected from ChaBad)... Just because they use a period there does not help us with answering this question, which asks specifically about the Hebrew of the Biblical text. Sep 27, 2013 at 12:30