“Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am Hashem.” Leviticus 19:28 (The Israel Bible™)
Despite a Biblical prohibition against tattoos, numerous people are tattooing their bodies with Hebrew letters. The reasons for this trend are probably as varied as the words and designs they choose.
From ancient Egypt to the Philippines and the Andes, tattoos have historically served as permanent markings indicating social status, religious affiliation, and military rank and accomplishments. Women have used tattoos to beautify their bodies. Slaves bore markings that identified their owners.
Biblically, the commandment prohibiting tattoos (Leviticus 19:28) alluded to the idea that our bodies are holy vessels and should not be mutilated or changed in any permanent way. However, over the past two decades or so, there has been a marked increase in people getting tattooed with Hebrew letters, words, and even Biblical verses.
For example, Brian Welch, guitarist for the heavy metal band Korn, has a Hebrew tattoo reading “Shechinah” (שכינה–God’s presence) on his left eyelid. In an interview with Tattoo.com, he said, “I think it’s amazing how the tattoo lifestyle affects not only my world, but the world at large. Basically, most of the time, tattoos reveal what’s in a person’s heart.”
While observant Jews note the Biblical prohibition against getting a tattoo, ancient commentators had differing opinions regarding this commandment. The Talmud debates whether tattooing God’s name or the name of another deity is problematic.
Rabbi Moshe Maimon (Maimonides), the most renowned medieval Jewish scholar, wrote that tattooing one’s body in any way is a pagan practice and all pagan customs are forbidden. However, the Talmud states, “He is not liable until he writes a name [of idolatry] there.”
Many celebrities who have gotten Hebrew tattoos have publicly shared various reasons for this phenomenon. Some have rekindled their faith. Others want to connect to the ancient Holy language of Hebrew, the Jewish people, or their culture.
Celebrity Hebrew tattoos include various names of God, Hebrew words and phrases as well as Jewish symbols. Some examples:
1. David Beckham
Professional soccer player David Beckham and his model/singer wife Victoria Beckham both have the same Hebrew tattoo, from the Song of Songs, “ani l’dodi v’dodi li, ha’roeh bashoshanim” (אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי, וְדוֹדִי לִי, הָרֹעֶה בַּשּׁוֹשַׁנִּים), meaning, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, who browses among the roses.”
2. Stephen Curry
NBA superstar Stephen Curry and his wife Ayesha have matching Hebrew tattoos saying “ha’ahava l’olam lo nichshelet” (האהבה לעולם לא נכשלת), meaning, “love never fails.”
3. Fabian Gilot
French Olympic medalist swimmer Fabian Gilot has on his upper bicep the words “ani klum bil’adeihem” (אני כלום בלעדיהים), meaning, “I am nothing without them”. In an interview with Tablet, he said the tattoo was in honor his grandmother’s husband, Max Goldschmidt, who survived Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
4. Génesis Rodríguez
American actress Génesis Rodríguez has a “hamsa” (mystical hand) tattoo, which symbolizes protection against the evil eye, covering her entire foot. In the middle of the design appears the Hebrew word “chai” (חי), which means “life”, in the center of a Jewish star.
5. Saulius Ritter
Saulius Ritter, a 29 year old professional rower from Lithuania who won a gold medal in the 2011 European Rowing Championship, has a Hebrew tattoo on his thigh which says, “chayal” (חייל), “soldier”
6. Sandra Solomon
Sandra Solomon, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity, tattooed the Hebrew word “Yisrael” (ישראל) – “Israel” on her back. Born in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, raised in Saudi Arabia and presently a resident of Canada, Solomon (not her birth name) is the niece of Saher Habash, one of the founders of the anti-Israel Fatah party. Today, she is a public advocate for Israel.
Roni Segal, the academic adviser for Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, an online language academy, has advice for all the famous and not-so-famous people interested in getting a Hebrew tattoo. “Before you permanently engrave your body with letters or words from the Holy language, it is probably a good idea to study that language and gain at least a basic understanding of the Hebrew language,” she suggested.
“Learning Hebrew will increase your connection to Israel and the Jewish people much more than a painful application of permanent ink to your skin. And, then, if you still want the tattoo, you can at least make sure that there are no spelling mistakes!”
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