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02.02.2021 | כ שבט התשפא

"And put my name upon the children of Israel."

Writing the Lord’s name on the bodies of Jews throughout the ages: from Biblical times to the early Middle Ages


For two millennia, Jews have imprinted signs and inscriptions on their bodies. Although the Bible prohibits tattooing (Leviticus 19:28: "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor imprint any marks upon you"), there were Jews who wrote the Lord’s name on their bodies, apparently with ink. Prof. Meir Bar-Ilan's research examines the evidence for this practice.

Examples attesting to the writing of the Lord’s name on the arm or on the forehead include: Cain’s mark in Genesis 4:15; the book of Ezekiel 9: 4-6: "…and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men…"; Isaiah 44: 5: "... and another shall write (on) his hand unto the Lord, and surname himself by the Name of Israel "; and it is said to the high priest as well as in Exodus 39:30. It is possible that the practice developed among clerics, and only later spread among the common people. The study suggests reading the verse "So shall they put my Name upon the children of Israel, and I shall bless them" (Numbers 6:27) literally, and not as a metaphor.

There is also evidence in the Talmud that there were Jews who inscribed the Lord’s Name on their bodies in ink, and in the “Hekhalot” literature (a mystic corpus, dedicated to the “Hekhalot” or heavenly palace) there are two detailed descriptions of how the name of God was written on the bodies of people in a kind of rite-of-passage. The Galatians in the New Testament include additional evidence for writing the name of God on the human body in ancient Judaism.