Body Piercing and Self-Mutilation in Jewish Law

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by R. Gil Student

What does Jewish law say about body piercing? The main issue is one of chabalah, wounding. You are not allowed to wound another person and body piercing is considered wounding.

I. Giving Permission

But what about wounding someone who gives you permission? For example, boxing. Implicit in a boxing match is that each boxer gives the other permission to hurt him. Is this sufficient to make boxing permissible? That is a matter of debate that R. Daniel Z. Feldman discusses in his The Right and the Good (second edition, p. 165). He quotes the Rivash (Responsa, no. 484) and others who forbid wounding even if the other person gives permission and the Minchas Chinukh (48:2) and others who disagree and allow it. According to the Rivash, piercing would not be allowed just because you give permission to the piercer to do it.

II. Lack of Malice

However, there is another reason to permit it. The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Chovel U-Mazik 5:1) writes that the prohibition to wound someone is derekh bizayon (in a humiliating way), although some have the wording of derekh nitzayon (in a quarrelsome way). According to either text, this would allow wounding that is for aesthetic purposes, such as body piercing. The question, though, is whether we follow this interpretation of the Rambam (see The Right and the Good, pp. 166-167 for sources on this Rambam).

III. Cosmetic Surgery

This is particularly relevant regarding cosmetic surgery. It involves wounding someone for aesthetic purposes. Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer 11:41) forbids surgery for aesthetic purposes. Rav Yitzchak Weiss (Minchas Yitzchak 6:105:2) writes that there is no problem of wounding if the surgery is for aesthetic purposes but there seems to be a problem of entering into the danger of general anesthesia unnecessarily. Rav J. David Bleich (Judaism and Healing, pp. 160-161) seems to permit cosmetic surgery entirely when it will relieve mental anguish. While Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:66) permits cosmetic surgery even when there is no anguish at all. It seems from the preceding that the bulk of the decisors rule leniently on the issue of wounding.

IV. Gentile Practices

I’ve heard it suggested that having your body pierced is an example of a forbidden Gentile practice (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 178:1). However, as I discuss in my book, Posts Along the Way (pp. 67-69), normative practice follows the view of the Maharik, who holds that as long as you are doing a practice for a reason other than the imitation of Gentiles it is permissible (there is a debate about idolatrous practices that I discuss in my book but is not relevant here). If you are getting your body pierced because you like the way it looks, I don’t see how halakhically it is any different than dressing in a stylish sports jacket.

V. What In The World Is Wrong With You?

Then there are the fuzzy arguments about how it’s stupid to pierce your body, it looks horrible, and generally shows a disrespect for authority and tradition. I agree with all these arguments. Additionally, if the specific piercing implies association with any particular ideology, then it might also be forbidden if that ideology is contrary to Judaism. But, in general, I don’t think that piercing is against Jewish law but it is against Jewish wisdom.

(adapted from a Sep ’09 essay)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

One comment

  1. I assume that you are not including getting ears pierced??? Also with respect to nose rings as in your picture, what about the description of nezamim mentioned severl times in the Torah?

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