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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been rated XXX due to graphic images linked within the piece. Readers should take caution when viewing the links.
Even in today’s day and age, where tattoo’s and body piercings are in vogue, some piercings are still a bit…out there.
Earrings? Of course – a soon as one’s infant daughter turns one month old. How about a second ear piercing? That’s a bit more of a statement, but…sure, why not? Navel piercings are now a fairly mainstream fashion statement, particularly during bikini season.
Tiny nose studs? Sure. No biggie.
Tongue piercings? That’s getting a bit more overtly sexual than aesthetic, but even those are fairly common nowadays.
Eyebrow piercings and lip piercings? I may be off about this, but these don’t seem to be quite as mainstream as the others; they appear to be more indicative of a Gothic or other alternative lifestyle.
Nipple piercings? Like tongue piercings, these seem to be common, but more among those who are highly sexually active, and who place a priority on sexual aesthetics and sensations.
Then you have clitoral and labial piercings. Now, it’s really hard to gather any statistics about these, but it would seem like these piercings are like nipple and tongue piercings on steroids. These are the most sensitive and sacred areas of the female body, and the part of the body that is exposed the least. Women who have these areas pierced are hardcore; they mean (sexual) business. Even among those, however, it seems that piercing the clitoral hood is more common than piercing the labia.
Raise your hand if you know someone who has pierced her labia. I suspect that that demographic might be slightly higher here on Jewrotica than elsewhere, but I’m still wondering how high it is.
What does Torah say about piercings?
Not much, really. Unlike tattoos, there is no Biblical prohibition against piercings. Indeed, we find many references in the Torah to the common use of both earrings and nose rings:
[When a Hebrew slave was to be freed but declares his love for his master and refuses to leave]: “his master shall take him before G-d. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his slave for life” (Exodus 21:6).
[When Eliezer met Rebecca’s family, intending to ask them for Rebecca’s hand in marriage to Isaac]: “I inquired of her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’…And I put the ring on her nose and the bands on her arm” (Genesis 24:47).
[When the Israelites requested a new leader after Moses had tarried on Mount Sinai for more than 40 days, and they believed him dead]: “Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives…’” (Exodus 32:2).
“I decked you out in finery…I put a ring in your nose, and earrings in your ears…” (Ezekiel 16:11).
However, there are also some interesting references to additional piercings and jewelry that are certainly worth mentioning.
In this weeks double Parshah, Matot-Masei, G-d commands the Israelites to take revenge upon the Midianites for the role they played in sending their daughters to seduce the Israelites to promiscuity, and ultimately, to worship the idol Pe’or. Obediently, the Israelites go to war against Midian, and return victorious, having suffered not a single casualty. The military officers thus approach Moses and Elazar, the High Priest, with the following presentation:
We therefore wish to bring an offering for the Lord. Any man who found a gold article, be it an anklet, a bracelet, a ring, an Agil (עָגִיל), or a Kumaz (כוּמָז), to atone for our souls before the Lord. (Numbers, 31:50)
A Kumaz is actually referenced in one other place in Torah. When the Israelites were donating materials for the construction of the Tabernacle, it states:
The men came with the women; every generous hearted person brought bracelets and earrings and rings and Kumaz (כוּמָז), all kinds of golden objects, and every man who waved a waving of gold to the Lord. (Exodus, 35:22)
What is this Kumaz?
As it turns out, there differing views as to what precisely a Kumaz was; which may depend upon whether we are discussing the Israelites’ Kumaz, which they donated to the Tabernacle, or the Midianites’ Kumaz, which were turned over to Moses.
Regarding the Israelites’ Kumaz in Exodus, Rashi describes the Kumaz as “a golden ornament placed over a woman’s private parts. Our Rabbis explain the name Kumaz as an acrostic: ‘Kahn Mikom Zima‘ (כַּאן מְקוֹם זִמָּה), meaning ‘here is the place of lewdness.'” This opinion is derived from a passage in the Talmud (Shabbat, 64a) discussing the Midianites’ Kumaz, and is consistent with another statement made there by Rav Sheshet, in which he referred to the Kumaz as “inner jewelry”, in contradistinction to ordinary rings, which are “outer jewelry.” Id. 64b, Rashi.
In this week’s Parshah, however, Rashi describes the Kumaz as “a form for the female genitalia, to atone for their sinful thoughts concerning the Midianite women.” This, too, is taken from a statement of R’ Elazar in the Talmud that the Agil was jewelry in the shape of breasts, and the Kumaz was jewelry in the shape of a vulva. It is unclear whether this was something like a pendant, hanging from a woman’s neck, or if it was an ornament impressed over a woman’s genitalia, and adopting its shape. It does seem, however, according to this opinion, that it was more “outer jewelry,” that might be visible to the naked eye.
Going back to the first interpretation, though, what kind of “inner jewelry” might the women have worn? Was a Kumaz the equivalent of a golden G-string? Perhaps. However, Rashi, in a different section of Talmud (Brachot, 24a), suggests a different possibility. There he says that the Kumaz was a kind of chastity device; oh, not a chastity belt – that would be way too passe. No, this was a device that would require them to pierce the labia, the same way they would pierce their ears, and then to use those piercings to affix a metal wall that would block access to any randy males. Something like this, perhaps?
How about that! Genital piercing to enforce modesty and celibacy!
Of course, this raises a whole host of questions, such as:
On the other hand, if they were external pendants or casts of the breasts and/or the vulva, such as this, is that something that the Israelites would have worn? Given the lengths that the Rabbis have gone to to inculpate the trait of modesty among the Jewish people, it seems that wearing something so provocative as a metal cast of female genitalia would not have been an acceptable practice at the time.
Perhaps, then this is how we make sense of the Kumaz.
The Egyptians were a nation steeped in sensuality. They would certainly have had ornaments with sensual shapes, including breast-shaped ornaments and vulva-shaped ornaments. The Israelites would likely have taken those ornaments, either when they went through Egypt gathering wealth shortly before Exodus, or later, when the Egyptians’ gold was washed up on the shores of the Red Sea. A few months later, when Moses asked the Israelites to donate precious metals for the construction of the Tabernacle, there ornaments would likely have been good donation choices. They were made of solid metal, they were probably not getting that much use, and they would go far towards supplying the Tabernacle with its metal needs.
The Kumaz of the Midianites, on the other hand, is the one primarily discussed by the Talmud. The Talmud certainly makes it seem that the Kumaz was “inner jewelry” – not something visible on the outside – and Rashi specifically describes it as a chastity device. Perhaps – and this is total speculation on my part – these chastity devices were removed by the Midianites for the purpose of freeing their daughters to seduce the Israelites. Thus, when the Israelites entered Midian after their victory, they found the removed Kumazes, and realized that this was their “smoking gun” as to Midian’s intentions. This also would explain G-d’s vehemence in commanding the revenge upon Midian, given the lengths that the Midianites went to to harm the Jewish people – that they even removed their daughters’ chastity belts in order to facilitate the seduction of the Jews. And it would explain, um, with far less awkwardness, how the Israelites actually, ahem, got their hands on the Kumaz in the first place.
Such a distorted view of sex among the nations would actually not be surprising. It is reminiscent of the Victorian era, in which women were openly prudish yet secretly lascivious, such that sex carried a very negative and guilt-ridden stigma. Perhaps Midian, too, was a society in which sex was a taboo on the surface, even to the extent of piercing women with a chastity device, but where sex would readily be used as a weapon against their enemies.
Although, as we discussed earlier, there are no direct Biblical prohibitions on piercings, such piercings would seem to be disfavored. For one thing, Judaism is a very sex-positive religion, without the sexual hangups that afflict many of the other religions. Thus, the type of extreme chastity reflected in the Midianite Kumaz is not really how we roll. For another, there is a prohibition against mutilating one’s body (see, e.g., Deuteronomy, 14:1), and a positive commandment to protect one’s life and health (see Deuteronomy, 4:15). Some piercings, in some places, and in some ways could pose a danger to one’s health and hygiene.
Finally, every person was created b’Tzelem Elokim – in the image of G-d (Genesis, 9:6), or, as Job once put it, “in my flesh, I see God.” Job, 19:26. Thus, we celebrate the bodies that G-d gave us, and are cautious about doing anything to our body that would alter its G-dly character.
So where does one draw the line? If earrings are okay, who’s to say what alternative or additional piercings are not? It’s a good question, and requires each person to make their own assessment of how they view their own body in relation to their Creator.