Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Henna in Jewish Culture

Henna is a small flowering shrub which grows throughout the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. As far back as human history has been documented this plant has been used to dye skin, hair and nails. The first observed usage goes back to ancient Egypt as archeologists have discovered mummified remains that have various body parts dyed with henna. A popular example of this is the mummy of Rameses II whose hair and nails are dyed with henna. Interestingly scientists have analyzed the hair of Rameses II and determined that his hair was originally red and they suggest that the use of henna as a hair dye was to perpetuate the reddish color of his hair in order to maintain a youthful appearance.
 
Nearly all ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures used and continue to use henna as a dye for personal beautification. Judaism has an ancient henna tradition likely going back to Egypt. Ancient Israelites used henna as a skin and hair dye routinely. Jewish women used henna designs as temporary tattoos on their skin on a daily basis, for festival occasions and especially during weddings as the bride would display elaborate designs during this time. This usage is also parallel in other cultures but in modern times the tradition amongst Jews has been continued by many Sefardim and Mizrahi Jews. There is a growing trend amongst all Jews in our modern era to embrace the ancient henna customs as modern Jews, like other peoples, are suffering from cultural and ethnic depravity. Modern society has caused dissolution of ethnic customs in favor of homogenous western societal norms. The recent surge of people attempting to re-embrace their cultural and ethnic heritages is a reaction to the generic western culture that lacks beauty and inspiration.
In modern times there is a significant rise of henna usage for Jewish weddings. Typically, a Jewish

wedding revolves around 3 distinctive elements: First is the chuppah (wedding canopy) which symbolizes the Shekinah that resided over the children of Israel and Mt. Sinai as they waited for Moses to ascend the Mount, second is the ketubah (marriage contract) which symbolizes the Torah that Moses descended the Mount with, and third is the ring ceremony which hearkens to the ancient custom of dowry. These are all beautiful customs but pale in contrast to the henna ceremonies of the North African and Yemenite Jewish communities.

The Henna ceremony is typically held a week before the wedding ceremony. During the henna ceremony the bride wears elaborate gowns (Traje de Berberisca) as well as an ornate headdress styled as a foot tall crown and luxurious beads and jewels as she has her hands and feet dyed with decorative henna designs. Simultaneously there is much festivity taking place with song and folk dance. The bride's guests typically participate in receiving henna designs as well and in some communities the groom will also have henna dye applied to him. In the Moroccan Jewish tradition the bride may change her costume three times- each one being more elaborate than the previous. In the Yemenite tradition the groom also wears an elaborate costume, albeit he only wears one.
The festivities include not only song and dance but a festive meal. These festivities are meant to prepare the bride for her departure from her family's home. According to custom the word Henna, which is pronounced as Chenah, is an acronym that represents the three mitzvot (commandments) which are specific to married women: Challah (separating the challah), Niddah (family purity) and Hadlakat Nayrot (lighting Shabbat candles). Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France 11th century) explained that henna is a sign of forgiveness and absolution, showing that God forgave the Israelites who tested Him in the Wilderness. By analogy, the bride and groom start off with a clean slate as they begin their new lives together.
Besides henna being used in the context of weddings it is also used during Purim (in emulation of Esthher) and other festive occasions such as Pesach (Passover). Henna can be applied for any festive occasion. Births, circumcisions, victories, birthdays, bnei mitzvot and other passage ceremonies have traditionally used henna as part of the festivities. As a rule, henna usage is quite diverse so if you feel that henna would enhance your celebration, go for it!