Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Wipe Off the Dirt from Thy Face, Thou Hussey: Blessings, Curses, and other Colourful Henna Expressions

In researching henna, I began coming across proverbs and folk sayings that have to do with henna. I’ve been collecting them for a while (Google Books is your friend!), but when I found the one quoted in the title (we’ll get to it below) I knew I had to share. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to use these with your henna clients — and you know of any others, please add them in the comments!

The first group of expressions are expressions that are said during the actual application of henna, or blessings said for applying henna. In many Jewish communities, the application of henna was accompanied by lengthy songs and poems, in both Hebrew and local languages (like Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, and others). I certainly don’t have space to cover those here — maybe in another blogpost. But I’ll offer some short expressions:

They all look pretty happy to me!
Jewish wedding, Aleppo, 1914.
Among Syrian Jews in Aleppo, for example, on the night of the henna it was customary to say (Piamenta, 1983, pg. 111): ḥinnet-il-hana, ‘may it be a henna of happiness,’ to which the response was, Allah yhanniki witḥanni idena w’ideki, ‘May G!d make you happy, and may you henna our hands and yours!’ 

Jews in Urfa [Sanliurfa, Turkey] would bless the bride with short rhyming poems; for example: ha madi iddik alyamin ha ya ward waya yasmin, huwa yaghalbik bissa‘ada wanti taghalbi bilbanin, ‘Stretch out your right hand, O rose, O jasmine, he will give you happiness and you will give him sons.’ 

Another example: ya marat ibni ‘abit rasik hinna, walama khattabtik malakt janna, winshalla tartaf‘i, wada’iman tatahani, ‘O wife of my son, I filled your head with henna, and when I betrothed you I became ruler of paradise; may you rise up and be always joyful’ (Oster, 1972, pg. 17). There were similar poems for the groom, the parents of the couple, and the entire gathering (Oster, 1972, pg. 18).

Monday, March 10, 2014

As Beautiful As Queen Esther: Henna Traditions for Purim

This upcoming weekend is the holiday of Purim, so I’m already elbow-deep in hamantaschen and trying desperately to come up with a clever costume. Any suggestions? 

In the meantime, I thought I’d share some information about henna traditions for Purim.

Jewish girl carrying water
for the bath, Sundur, Iraqi
Kurdistan, mid-20th century.
First of all, there is a connection to the story of Purim as found in the Bible. The book of Esther describes how Esther enters the Beit haNashim (the House of the Women) for twelve months: for the first six months they were anointed with myrrh, and for the last six months with ointments, described as תמרוקים, tamruqim (Esther 2:3). 

What is the meaning of tamruq? The word is traditionally interpreted as being some sort of cleansing or purifying ointment; it comes from the root m.r.q., the basic meaning of which is ‘to rub.’
Could the tamruq have been henna? It’s possible, but there’s no evidence for certain. Henna may have been known in ancient Persia, although the closest proof we have for that is that Pliny mentions henna as one of the ingredients in a ‘Parthian Royal Ointment’ (Historia Naturalis, XIII.2), so we can’t say for sure. 

If the tamruq was henna, it would explain Esther 2:9, where the head eunuch takes a liking to Esther and ensures that she is the first of all the women to get her tamruqim, thus granting Esther the darkest and longest-lasting stains. Whatever it was, it worked, since Esther finds favour in the king’s eyes and is chosen as the queen.

But what about historical henna traditions to celebrate Purim in Jewish communities? Since henna was a commonly-used cosmetic, especially at times of celebration, it’s not surprising that there are records of Jewish communities using henna to beautify themselves before Purim.