Please read this before getting your Hebrew tattoo

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So, I’ve seen a lot of really awful “Hebrew” tattoos. I’ve also seen a lot of posts on this subreddit about people getting tattoos. If your knowledge of Hebrew is minimal, I really hope this post helps. I don’t want to see any more terrible tattoos. If you’re coming here to ask about your tattoo, you’re already doing infinitely better than these people.

1) Hebrew goes right to left. If you get a word tattooed backwards, it might mean something different, or look like gibberish. (I couldn’t think of any funny examples, I’m sorry)

2) Certain Hebrew letters look different at the end of a word. A mem (מ) at the end of a word looks like this: ם, and is called mem sofit, meaning final mem. If you don’t put the right letter form, it looks a thousand times worse than not capitalizing a letter in English. It looks really, really bad.

Here’s the complete list:

  • Regular kaf: כ; kaf sofit: ך
  • Regular mem: מ; mem sofit: ם
  • Regular nun: נ; nun sofit: ן
  • Regular pe: פ; pe sofit: ף
  • Regular tsadi: צ; tsadi sofit: ץ …

3) There is a difference between Biblical Hebrew, the language preserved by Jewish texts, and Modern Hebrew, the language of modern-day Israelis, which has a lot of influence from English, Russian, German, etc. The differences are found in phonology, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, prosody, etc. There’s a lot.

How this affects you is

a. you have to decide, if you’re getting phrase, do you want it to be Biblical or Modern.

b. is that word you want to use Modern, Biblical, or some weird made-up word that made it’s way into the mix. If you want it to be relevant, there are certain Ancient Hebrew words you might want to avoid. Only old people say “בוודאי.” If it’s a religious tattoo, you might want to use words that are not in the Modern Hebrew lexicon.

4) Niqqud. Here’s the word “Obama” with niqqud (top) and written normally (bottom): http://imgur.com/weDntfl

Because Hebrew has no written vowels, it can be difficult to know how to pronounce a word without knowing the general grammar/patterns of the language. Therefore we have niqqud, which tell you which vowel goes between two consonants, or whether a ‘bet’ makes a /b/ or a /v/ sound, for example. However, please please please don’t get the niqqud as a part of your design. They’re like the training wheels of Hebrew. It’s like getting the word “Barack Hussein” tattooed as “buh-rahk hoo-seyn.” Stop that.

5) Religion. Although that thing about people with tattoos not being allowed to be buried in Jewish cemeteries is a myth, Judaism has a lot against tattoos. First, there is the Torah.

“You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28).

Secondly, there is the fact that people in the Holocaust had an identification number tattooed on their wrist. Both of these facts make tattoos in Judaism pretty taboo. This isn’t universally true, though; my family has gotten tattoos. Our rabbi doesn’t give a shit. I ate sausage yesterday morning. Just consider that you may get some criticism.

6) Cursive versus script

Hebrew in text and in handwriting look somewhat different. The first, you can find in the Torah (where the calligraphy is very ornate and beautiful), as well as official documents, and in typing. The second you find in anything handwritten, as well as modern media and press. See this wikipedia page to see different Hebrew fonts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebrew_alphabet

That’s all I can think of. If any one else knows other things to include, please let me know.

Here’s some useful links:

Typing Hebrew: Google Translate is really good for typing in Hebrew. Make the input Hebrew and the output English, and click on the keyboard icon at the bottom left of the text box. You don’t know how to type; you can click on the letters on the screen.

Pronouncing Hebrew: this is for helping you pronounce words in whatever language you’re looking for. If you type in “קיפוד.” you’ll find a Hebrew speaker’s recording where you can hear them say “kipod.”

Hebrew-English Tenakh: The Torah and other books with Hebrew and English back-to-back. If you’re wondering what a certain phrase in Hebrew means, or you want to know how to say, “And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be cleared, and shall conceive seed,” just type it in there an see the original Hebrew on the left.

Edited to include all letters with final forms, thanks to /u/Schnutzel

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