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Ask Shifra

Something Different... Answering questions and making curious observations (online) since 2005.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

Hebrew Tattoos

I've been determined not to waste my summer this year, and when it comes to spending a summer right, time at the beach is high on my list.
I love the ocean, it's just magical to me and I never get tired of it.
I love looking out at the waves, playing in the sand of course people watching.

One thing I've noticed plenty of are tattoos, I never want to look, but really the whole concept just fascinates me, like some kind of super slow train wreck. Here are people who decide that there is an image they like so much they want it on their skin.... FOREVER! I have trouble picking a pair of sandles!

So what do they choose as their ever lasting image?
A skull on fire of course! Now that's an image for the ages apparently!
I have lots more to say about skulls in pop culture, but that's another post.

Aside from flaming skulls, something I've noticed plenty of that strikes me so odd is the prevalence of Hebrew tattoos.
What's up with that?

Whenever I see Hebrew permanently marked on to a persons skin my first thought is "Oh they must be Israeli... or Jewish..." but no. A second look will over reveal the presence of crosses or other marks ruling out that as a strong likelihood.

So why a Hebrew tattoo? Here's a whole website dedicated to them, and that's just one of MANY! It boggles my mind.

So the last time I was at the beach I saw a Hebrew tattoo that puzzled me, especially since my Hebrew is pretty rusty.
I don't trust my memory 100% but it was something like "Betach Baal."
The guy who was wearing it, had dozens of others from the Celtic Cross to what looked like the Golden Gate Bridge! He also looked like he could have turned me into hamburger meat in a matter of moments so I didn't ask him or look for very long, but it's been bothering me.

I looked up the word "Baal" and "tattoos" and apparently the God "Baal" was worshipped by the application of tattoos which may be part of the reason they are forbidden in Judaism today... but maybe I'm totally barking up the wrong tree here.

If any of my readers can help me solve this riddle I'd be grateful.



At 11:56 AM, Blogger Elie said...

Not sure about that tattoo. "Ba'al" in Hebrew has several possible meanings besides the name of a Babylonian god, including husband, master, and owner/possessor of a quality (e.g., "ba'al middos"). That said, I have no clue what "betach ba'al" could mean!

At 12:13 PM, Anonymous Pete said...

Fascinating post.

If "Baal" was spelled בעל then this might indeed be a reference to an ancient Middle Eastern deity, but I think it more likely that the spelling was באל "ba'el", which would make the tattoo mean "Trust in God". If the first spelling is correct, it is difficult to decipher what the tattoo was supposed to say.

Hebrew is not the simplest of languages ;)
It's no wonder there are many Hebrew tattoos out there with mistakes, in both language and orthography.

This is why it's a good idea to use a professional service that will translate and design your Hebrew tattoo for you, such as My Hebrew Tattoo

At 12:49 PM, Blogger Eliyahu said...

considering the longevity of tattoos, perhaps Hebrew is really the best language for them! the meaning can change over the years. this brings to mind the birthday card a friend told me about. seems a woman had a tattoo of a rose on one of her breasts. on one of her seventy something birthdays, someone asked about her rose. she said, oh it still looks great, it's just a long stemmed rose now!

At 3:20 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

Pete - Thanks for your help!
I think it was an Aleph... that interpretation was my first thought as well.
I knew I should have paid more attention in spelling... and tanach...

At 7:18 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I don't know about this particular tattoo but I know a couple things.

1. There are "pagans" who use hebrew letters in their tarot cards, and like to put "runes" on themselves for magical purposes. These will look like tattoos to the average person :)

2. There are people in the new age kaballah scene who like to put "names of god" on themselves as tattoos to get magical protections/powers from that as well. Or to "help suppress their ego"

At 7:35 PM, Blogger Little Wolf said...

I have found tattoos interesting for quite sometime as well.

Never had any interest in getting one, but I find them fascinating for some reason.

That said, my great niece (half great niece) had a Hebrew tattoo. She isn't 'technically' Jewish, but she at least felt some connection. It said Mishpacha. I have to say that I haven't seen many elsewhere.

Daganev: I actually dated a 'Pagan' for a while in college. The reason they may be using the Hebrew letters is that many of them refer to what they see as Kabbalah as a source for parts of their religious practice. I think the age of our religion makes them feel it has relevance to there practice.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger The Way said...

Interesting topic. I would venture the opinion that when someone gets a tat that strikes you as odd and you wonder how that person can get that image on them forever, they may wonder why someone would cut off their child's foreskin FOREVER just because their god told them to. Cutting one's self (and their children)and making marks on the body is among the oldest of tribal rituals. You may wonder why they chose a specific type of cutting or mark but it is no less strange or tribal than a circumcision.

At 12:18 PM, Blogger Shifra said...

The Way -

I think that's a pretty bizzare comparison. For one thing, one is quite private and rarely the recipient's choice, while the other is (typically) public at the age of 18 or above.

Also I'm not talking about ritual tattoos here, nor am I talking about the branding of livestock for that matter... I'm talking about recreational tattoos in modern times as a form of self expression.

It's also interesting to note that circumcision is quite popular in the US (and other countries) but with no religious association bound it whatsoever in most cases.
so I'm not really sure where you are going with that one...

Did I miss your point? I think I did!

At 1:41 PM, Blogger The Way said...

psychologically, tatting one's self as a form of self expression is merely an offshoot of ritual tribal tats and cuttings. Even though most people are no longer living in small tribal communities the psychological need to express one's self in that manner is a natural part of our hardwiring.
But people often find their own rituals normal and other's bizarre.

Other than for religious (aka tribal) reasons, the vast majority of the world does not circumcise. America got into it since the 1800's and it was based on some crazy reasons. The rate of circumcisions in the US is dropping fast.
All that aside, my point is that the psychological reasons for tats and circumcision are essentially the same. I am not referring to the baby's mindset, I am referring to the parents who cut their child to enter him into their tribe.

At 4:33 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

"psychologically, tatting one's self as a form of self expression is merely an offshoot of ritual tribal tats and cuttings. "

Going to the supermarket is equivalent of going hunting in the olden days.

But if someone goes hunting for sport, they aren't doing it because they want to survive, even though you might want to argue its a psychological offshoot... whatever you think that means.

At 4:39 PM, Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

It looks cool, is probably how it can best be summed up.

For what it's worth, to this day the most popular post I ever did (which is to say, the one that visitors arrive at daily through google) is "Bad Hebrew Tattoos". In fact, I get so much traffic on that post that the picture seems to be down.

At 8:49 PM, Blogger The Way said...

That is actually a great example dagnev. Yes, when people go hunting for sport nowadays it is not for food their immediate survival. However, hunters and other wilderness sportspeople often talk of connecting to nature and their history and to knowledge that is not used so much. That instinctive part of their brain that did hunt for survival needs to be fulfilled. And that part of the brain is satisfied knowing that if they did need to survive, they might have a better chance then the non-hunter. And even if they won't ever need it for survival, it is still part of the survivor/hunter instinct.

At 9:42 PM, Anonymous Modeh B'Miktsas said...

In modern hebrew betach can mean 'really' in both the interrogative and emphatic. betach בעל in that case would mean "really, baal!" and would make sense of a sort if the guy was a neopagan.

At 9:44 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

"And that part of the brain is satisfied knowing that if they did need to survive, they might have a better chance then the non-hunter. And even if they won't ever need it for survival, it is still part of the survivor/hunter instinct."

So 90% of humans who have access to supermarkets don't have a survivor/hunter instinct?

I would think that as soon as you drop them in a forest, they would suddenly become hunters instead of going to the supermarket.

Not so with people who put on tattoos.

I'm not sure how tattoos are any more an instict as are t-shirts or hair styles or the type of car you buy.

At 11:28 PM, Blogger Holy Hyrax said...


This whole time, this whole time my parents could have put a cute little tatoo on my buttocks instead of slicing and dicing.

At 5:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am a lover of tattoos and want to dedicate one to my son... i would like 'my one and only love my life' translated please if possible... my email is angel_rose86@hotmail.co.uk any help would be greatful

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At 1:14 AM, Blogger BiFF said...

Hey, I'm wanting to get "this too shall pass" on a tattoo in honor of my nana...and i want it in hebrew...is there anyone that could possibly tell me if this is the right translation? I would really apprecate your help! גם זה יעבור


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