Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Ketovet Ka'aka (Leviticus 19:28): Tattooing or Branding?

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

Ketovet Ka'aka (Leviticus 19:28): Tattooing or Branding?

Article excerpt

You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks on you; I am the Lord (JPS 1917). You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, nor incise any marks on yourselves; I am the Lord (NJPS 1985).

In the ancient world during biblical times, the branding and tattooing of both animals and humans were commonly practiced. Currently, there is a fashion among the younger generation to have portions of the body tattooed. There is, therefore, an intriguing question to ask: How should we understand the prohibition of ketovet ka'aka in Leviticus 19:28? Clearly, the translations above reveal a real problem: The earlier translation distinguishes between "cuttings" and "imprinting(s)." The later translation, on the other hand, links "make gashes" with "incise." Neither, however, specifically mentions "branding." Or, does one of the terms in the Torah mean branding? Should we restrict the meaning of the prohibition of tattooing and not consider that it covers branding, or vice versa? Perhaps the Torah means to prohibit both tattooing and branding of human beings. If so, why then has only tattooing remained in the halakhic literature? Which is the likely meaning in the Torah?

In The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1992), (1) branding is defined as "a mark indicating identity or ownership, burned on the hide of an animal with a hot iron.... A mark burned into the flesh of criminals .... A mark of disgrace or notoriety; a stigma...." The same dictionary, using similar terms, defines tattoo as "A permanent mark or design made on the skin by a process of pricking and ingraining an indelible pigment." Both historically and in modern usage, these are two distinct and independent processes.

The prohibition against ketovet ka'aka which appears in Leviticus 19:28, is a hapax legomenon: that is, it is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible only once. Biblical hapax legomena play a large part in disputes over Bible translation, since they offer no comparison with other biblical texts, a fundamental tool for translating its antiquated language. Onkelos (a first-century BCE translator of the Torah into Aramaic) renders the deep scratches in Leviticus as roshmin chaditin, which indicates written incisions; that is, tattooing. The Peshitta (2) translates the word ka'aka as nokadata, a word which directly refers to the process of tattooing. Nekuda is a dot, and creating the tattoo is made by a continuous line of deep dots in the skin.

In post-biblical literature, the word ka'aka appears as an adjective. In Ben Sira, it appears with a clear contextual understanding that "veshorsham ad eretz ka'aka" means "and their root will be uprooted from its very basis." (3) This use offers us little help with the biblical term. The Mishnah (Makot 3:6) understands ketovet ka'aka to mean tattooing. It specifies "kochal," a blue-colored eye paint, and other colors, as the pigments used by Gentiles in their tattoos. Both the Babylonian and Jerusalem talmuds (B. Makot 21a, J. Makot 3:6) deal with ketovet ka'aka.

Rashi's exegesis of the verse gives the meaning "a scratch or incision that is embedded deeply [in the skin], can never be erased, is done with a needle, and darkens [the skin] forever." He also gives a further explanation of the process of tattooing in his interpretation of the Talmud (B. Makot 21a): "He [the person who tattoos himself] writes first on his flesh [skin] with "sam" or "sikra" [two kinds of ink or paints], and then he makes incisions into the skin with a needle or with a knife. The paint penetrates between the skin and the flesh, and can be seen all the days [lasting for his lifetime]. It is called pointurer in Old French [which means many small prickings of the skin]." (4)

When Rambam summarized this halakha he wrote: "ketovet ka'aka which is mentioned in the Torah, is a [deep] scratch on the flesh, filled with blue [paint] or ink or other lasting colors, as was the custom amongst the Gentiles to do [in honor of] their pagan gods. …

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