Body Marks in Jewish Sources: From Biblical to Post-Talmudic Times

In: Review of Rabbinic Judaism
Meir Bar-Ilan Bar-Ilan University Ramat Gan, 5290002 Israel

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During the course of two millennia, Jews imprinted signs and scripts on their bodies. Although the Bible prohibits tattooing (Lev. 19:28), some Jews wrote the Lord’s Name on their body, probably with ink. Here we examine evidence for this practice: Ezekiel 9:4–6, Cain’s Mark (Gen. 4:15), Isa. 44:5, Exod. 28:36, and 39:30, where examples of setting the Lord’s Name on one’s arm or forehead are delineated. This practice may have originated among priests (see Num. 6:22–27, which we argue is to be read literally and not as a metaphor) and only later was imitated by the laity. Thus, priests blessed orally and committed their blessing into a bodily inscription on the people they blessed. The Talmud also contains evidence that some Jews had the Lord’s Name written on their bodies in ink, and Hekhalot literature contains two detailed descriptions of how people were inscribed with God’s Name, in a kind of rite-of-passage. Other texts (e.g., Rev. 19:16; Gal. 6:17) provide additional evidence that Jews in antiquity inscribed the Lord’s Name on their bodies.

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