Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Her Fingers Stained Red from the Blood of the Slain": henna in medieval Hebrew love poetry

Today on the Jewish calendar is the 15th of the month of Av, or Tu beAv, which in ancient times was celebrated as a festival of love. The Mishna [compendium of rabbinic discussion, ca. 200 CE] records (Ta‘anit 4:6) that young women would go out to the vineyards to dance under the full moon in white dresses, and young men would choose their wives there. 

This holiday comes after the sombre commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, and we now move into a period known as the Seven Weeks of Comfort, which bring us to the New Year. In the liturgical calendar, the prophetic reading for this Shabbat contains the line (Isaiah 49:16) where G!d declares to the people of Jerusalem that G!d’s love for us can never fail: “Behold, I have engraved you onto the palms of My hands; your walls are in front of Me always.” That verse inspired the following design:

Henna and photo by Noam Sienna, 2008

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Introduction to Eshkol haKofer

Welcome to Eshkol haKofer! This is a space for me to blog about some of the interesting tidbits that I come across in my research of Jewish henna traditions.

The title of the blog comes from the Hebrew Bible, Song of Songs 1:14, which reads:

אֶשְׁכֹּל הַכֹּפֶר דּוֹדִי לִי בְּכַרְמֵי עֵין גֶּדִי
eshkol hakopher dodhi li bekharmei ‘ein gedhi
A cluster of henna blossoms is my beloved to me, in the vineyards of ‘Ein Gedi.

This simple metaphor is the beginning of the multimillenial story of the henna plant and the Jewish people. The study of Jewish henna touches on many different issues: the relationship between organized religion and folk culture, the social integration of Jews in the Islamic world, and the ways that Jewish communities adopt and adapt cultural forms from their surroundings and invest them with Jewish meaning. 

My research will draw on insights from history, rabbinic literature, anthropology, art history, and other fields. At its core, it seeks to understand the impact of henna use in its various manifestations on the spiritual and social lives of its Jewish practitioners. Thus the study of Jewish henna extends from contemporary Jewish couples marrying today in Toronto to colonial travelers writing about the exotic “Oriental Jews,” from medieval rabbis discussing whether henna stains constitute a ritual barrier for immersion to that nameless beloved and their henna bouquet in the desert, so many years ago.

Ein Gedi is an oasis in the south of the Land of Israel, west of the Dead Sea. Today it is a natural park which provides a sanctuary for a number of animal and plant species. In biblical times, it was renowned as a production centre for perfumes, one of which may have been made from henna flowers. 

Botanical drawing of Lawsonia inermis.
From Sonnini, Voyage dans la Haute et Basse Egypte, 1799.

Josephus, a Jewish historian of the 1st century CE, writes (The Wars of the Jews, 4.469):
καὶ μελιττοτρόφος δὲ ἡ χώρα: φέρει δὲ καὶ ὀποβάλσαμον, ὃ δὴ τιμιώτατον τῶν τῇδε καρπῶν, κύπρον τε καὶ μυροβάλανον, ὡς οὐκ ἂν ἁμαρτεῖν τινα εἰπόντα θεῖον εἶναι τὸ χωρίον, ἐν ᾧ δαψιλῆ τὰ σπανιώτατα καὶ κάλλιστα γεννᾶται.
This land [around Jericho] feeds honeybees; it also bears the balsam which is the most valuable of all the fruits of that place, and henna [kupros] as well as myrobalanus [?]; so that it would not be a mistake to call this place divine, since the rarest and most excellent plants grow here in abundance.

And 1,800 years later, when the English clergyman and naturalist Henry Baker Tristam (1822-1906) went on a natural history expedition to the Holy Land in 1863-4, he found henna bushes still growing wild in the area (The Land of Israel: A Journal of Travels in Palestine, Undertaken With Special Reference to Its Physical Character, 1865, pg. 299): 
The camphire of Engedi, mentioned in the Book of Canticles, we identified in a pretty shrub, with bunches of graceful pink-white blossoms, which was already in flower in some sheltered nooks, and called El-Henna by the Arabs, from which they procure the Henna dye — the Lawsonia alba of botanists.

Like Josephus, I believe in the sanctity of the place where henna is to be found, and I suspect that we have much to gain from our quest of that “rarest and most excellent” of plants. I invite you to join me on this journey! Suggestions, comments, questions, and criticisms are all warmly welcome. And feel free to follow us on Facebook for the latest updates!

Henna blessings,
Noam Sienna