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The modern Hebrew word


(tattoo) currently designates a

permanent mark on the skin; however, it is an ancient word which appears

in two ancient strata of the Hebrew language – Biblical and Mishnaic

Hebrew. The word




) appears in the Bible only once: “Ye shall

not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks



) upon you: I am the Lord” (Leviticus, 19:28). When the Mishnah

(Makkot 3:6) interprets this verse, it uses the verb


(to tattoo):

“If he writes without engraving [in Hebrew: tattoo], or he engraves

[in Hebrew: tattoos] without writing, he is not liable for lashes,

until he writes and engraves [in Hebrew: tattoos] with ink or

pigment or anything that leaves an impression. Rabbi Shimon ben

Yehudah said in the name of Rabbi Shimon [bar Yochai]: He is not

liable until he writes a name [of idolatry] there. As it says (Leviticus,

19): “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor

print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.”


Without delving into the Bible or the Mishnah’s view on tattoos,


it seems

that we may learn about their place in the world of the speakers of Biblical

and Mishnaic Hebrew by examining the Hebrew words





(to tattoo). In this essay, I would like to claim that their

sound and form are not arbitrary, but rather indicates that these speakers

had a certain familiarity with one of the tattooing methods of the ancient

world, and the sounds that it produced.

Aviv Schoenfeld

is a graduate of the Department of Linguistics at the Tel Aviv University.

On the Sound and Form of the Hebrew Words


(tattoo) and


(to tattoo)

Aviv Schoenfeld