Monday, April 14, 2014

Henna and Hametz: Jewish Henna Traditions for Passover

The holiday of Passover (or Pesah in Hebrew) is almost upon us! In between the matza ball soup, 12 types of haroset, and chocolate-caramel matza crunch (so good!) I thought I’d offer a few observations on henna’s connection to Passover.

Jewish singers with hennaed palms, Tissint,
ca. 1934, photo by Jean Besancenot.
Since henna was a symbol of celebration, it’s not surprising that it would make an appearance on Passover. One fascinating account comes from a British soldier known only as “Colonel Scott,” who had joined the forces of the great Algerian leader ‘Abd al-Qadir (or Abd-el-Kader, as Scott spells it).

On April 5, 1841, Scott was staying in the town of Taza, in the Highlands of Morocco, which happened to be the day before Passover. He writes: “The Jews have been extremely busy the last few days, white-washing their houses, and making preparations for the celebration of the feast of the passover, which commences to-morrow” (1842, pg. 53). Sounds about right!

He continues (1842, pp. 53-54): 
The Jewesses here not only dye their nails, but also their hands for this festival. Their manner of performing this operation is as follows; having made a paste of henna as thick as dough, they cover their hands with it to the thickness of a penny piece, they then have them bandaged up for the night; in the morning the paste being rubbed off, their hands are left a beautiful red; and so firmly does the dye take, that it remains on for eight or ten days, without any occasion for renewing the operation; at the expiration of the eight days, which time the feast lasts, they wash their hands and return to their usual occupations.

Passover is a week-long holiday, and so the henna was the perfect marker of this special time. Of course, he was mistaken if he thought that they washed their hands at the end of the week to remove the henna. But nonetheless it is an interesting account, and I imagine it must have been very visually striking.

A similar tradition was found among the Jewish communities of Kurdistan. Brauer (whom we met previously here) briefly notes (1947, pg. 232): “women dye their hair and hands with henna before the holiday, since henna is imagined to be hametz.Hametz, literally ‘leaven,’ refers to the foods forbidden on Passover: anything made of grain (wheat, rye, spelt, barley, or oats) that has been or could have been fermented (i.e., not baked immediately into matza). 

It should be obvious, then, that henna is not hametz, since it is not made of grain. However, apparently the women saw too much similarity between the process of mixing henna and letting it sit to allow the dye to release, and the process of kneading bread dough and letting it rise. When describing how they mixed henna, Brauer explains (1947, pg. 99): “the women knead the henna in a tashta [shallow metal bowl], moistening it with warm water and adding hamirit hinna [the henna yeast], which is made of smokeh [sumac]. The henna needs to ferment [lehithametz] like bread dough, until the evening.”

Kurdish Jewish woman making bread, Israel, 1950s.

The sumac, which is an acidic spice, would have helped the henna dye release, and they understood it to act as a kind of fermentation, calling it hamirit hinna [the yeast of the henna]. Thus it makes perfect sense why they would consider henna to be hametz!

This also might explain why I’ve never found any reference to henna celebrations for Mimouna, the Moroccan Jewish festival at the end of Passover. While it would fit in perfectly, if henna was cleaned out at the beginning of the holiday and people had dyed their hands already, then I understand why people wouldn’t have henna at the Mimouna.

I’ve personally taken on the custom of cleaning out my henna freezer for Passover, and thawing all the half-used cones and leftover scraps of henna — I usually mix it all up into a big bowl and dip the soles of my feet. It feels great to do that yearly clean and it is totally in keeping with the spirit of Passover. I also sometimes make a hennaed handprint on a piece of paper and hang it on the wall or door, to remind us of the blood on the doorposts that marked the Israelite homes during the Exodus. Since henna is also a symbol of protection, it’s another perfect match.

Of course, there’s yet another connection — henna is mentioned in the Song of Songs, the Biblical book that is associated with Passover and is read during the holiday. Like Passover, the holiday of springtime, it too is set in the spring, amid the budding of flowers and the verdant new flourishing of the earth. And like Passover, when we tell of how our people left enslavement for freedom (a process which the rabbis portrayed in the language of human love: seduction, elopement, marriage), it celebrates human love and sexuality, free of social constraints, overflowing with joy, passion, and promise.

Henna inspired by the Song of Songs, Noam Sienna, 2008.

“A cluster of henna blossoms is my beloved to me, in the vineyards of ‘Ein Gedi,” the verse (1:14) reads. Eshkol hakofer — a cluster of henna blossoms, and hence the title of my blog. The rabbis notice that the root of the word kofer, henna, is the same as the word kappara, atonement (ultimately they probably both go back to the meaning ‘to cover, smear’). In the Talmud (Shabbat 88b), Rabbi Joshua ben Levi uses an elaborate play on words to interpret henna as the symbol of our forgiveness: 
A cluster of henna [eshkol hakofer] in the vineyards of Ein Gedi [bekharmei Ein Gedi]: the One to whom all [shehakol] belongs will make atonement [mekhaper] for me for the sin of the Golden Calf [‘awon gdi] which I had stored [karamti] for myself.

Henna is at once a symbol of celebration, protection, and forgiveness — all good things to bring with us into the holiday. I’m so grateful to all my Eshkol haKofer readers, and I wish you all a very happy Passover. Hag sameah!

Brauer, ErichYehudei Kurdistan: meḥqar etnologi [The Jews of Kurdistan: ethnological research]. Completed and edited by Raphael Patai. Jerusalem: The Israeli Institute for Folklore and Ethnology, 1947.
Scott, Colonel. A journal of a residence in the Esmailla of Abd-el-Kader and of travels in Morocco and Algiers. London: Whittaker and Co, 1842.


Holly said...

How wonderful! It's so fun to read of these old henna traditions. I will be doing henna for a Mimouna here in Tucson on April 22nd and am very much looking forward to it.

Noam Sienna said...

Holly — that's great to hear! I'm glad it's helpful. And in fact, I should make an amendment — there is in fact a connection of henna to Mimouna, related to a custom known as "kittab" or "kettab": the symbolic marriage of children to the Torah, which takes place on the holiday of Shavu'ot. The symbolic 'engagement' begins on Mimouna, and so there was a custom in Fes to bring henna, a ring, and candies to little girls to ask for their hand (see Brunot and Malka, "Textes Judeo-Arabes de Fes," pg. 313). But henna was not part of Mimouna customs generally, as far as I know. That said, I was invited to do henna at a Mimouna celebration in Israel by a very traditional Moroccan family, and I hope you enjoy your Mimouna in Tucson — if you hear of any memories there of Moroccan henna for Mimouna, let me know!

Holly said...

So i went to the Mimouna last night and it was delightful. I printed out this post and had it on my table for people to read, but what happened was two people, one young girl and one older woman, asked for the beautiful design you did from the Song of Songs. I did my best to re-create it for them and they were quite happy. I only got a couple of photos, which i will send when i can get them downloaded.
Then there was the mufleta! I did not know that something so delicious could exist. Thanks so much for telling me to try some, or i might have missed it. :-)

Noam Sienna said...

So glad to hear, Holly! And oh yes, mufleta... It's why we suffer through eight days of Passover.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I’ve been looking for information on Rosh Hashanah Henna traditions. Would you know where to find some?