Why is tattooing oneself is prohibited, but branding is allowed? Either choice of body modification will leave a permanent mark on the skin.
OK, this is a halachic ruling, so you need to pay attention to the language and definition of terms.
It begins with Torah (Leviticus 19:28) “Do not write qaqa – tattoo your skin, I am God.”
The Mishna (Makot 3:6) without explicitly asking the question, addresses the question why the Torah calls the tattoo writing rather than simply calling it tattooing. The verse in Leviticus might just as well have said “Do not qaqa – tattoo your skin, I am God.” The Mishna therefore states the following: One who writes qaqa – tattoo writing. If he wrote but did not tattoo or tattooed but did not write he is not culpable. He is not culpable until he he writes and tattoos with ink or khol or other permanent markers. R. Shimon b Yehuda (in the name of R. Shimon) adds, he is not culpable until he writes the Name there, as it written “Do not write qaqa – tattoo your skin, I am God.”
So, before any other discussion of halacha, this is the question; what is a tattoo? According to the Torah, Mishna and Halacha a tattoo is writing on the surface of the skin that is then pushed under the skin with or without an implement. Simply writing on the skin or simply pushing pigment under the skin is not a tattoo. This is the Gezerat Hakatuv, the Biblical Decree defining what a tattoo is. Saying that tattooing oneself is forbidden is quite true. But the definition of a tattoo is crucial, as above.
This not mere legal hairsplitting. Let me give you an example of how halacha works in this respect. Cutting the Peyot of the head and beard is the same order of biblical prohibition and is dealt with in the same chapters of the Talmud. Modern and ancient Jews have always made very clear and fine distinctions between the various sorts of cutting implements and methods. The prohibition against cutting the Peyot has always been defined extremely rigidly. Orthopractic Jews all over the world cut their Peyot because the definition of the biblical prohibition is so rigid it permits them to avoid transgressing the prohibition by doing it in the non-prohibited way. (I hope I’m not being too turgid here in my writing)
So, the prohibition against tattooing is just as rigidly defined as Peyot cutting. Which brings me to my P’sak. If it isn’t tattooing as defined in the Mishna and Codes (Tur Yoreh Deah 180) it is permitted.
Maimonedes has a slightly different reading of the text. He says that the writing is the cutting itself. So, the tattoo pattern has to be cut into the skin first and the pigment pushed in later. Not as otherwise understood, that the pigment has to written onto the skin and then pushed under it.
All the halachic authorities ignore the fact that Rav Alfasi (Ri”f) paskens like R. Shimon in the Mishna who says that tattooing has be a name of a pagan god to be classified as a tattoo.
In summation. If your tattooist does not use the above described method to make the tat, then it does not fulfil the critera for the halachic definition of a tattoo; it’s not a tattoo and not forbidden. I would say that any instrument such as a hypodermic needle through which pigments are injected under the skin is not a tattooing tool as defined in the halacha and is permitted.
Branding is different because the Biblical prohibition against branding also contains a clause: for the dead. While tattooing is prohibited, period, cutting is only prohibited when done as a death or mourning rite or as an act of worship.
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