Friday, May 30, 2014

Adorning the Bride: Henna, Revelation, and the Mystical Marriage of Shavuot

Next week is the Jewish holiday of Shavu‘ot, which commemorates the Revelation of the Torah. In biblical times the holiday was an agricultural festival celebrating the end of the wheat harvest, but in rabbinic literature it was associated with the moment when the people of Israel stood together at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.

Traditionally, it is celebrated by studying the Torah and other Jewish texts all night long in a ritual known as tiqqun leil Shavu‘ot, “the tiqqun of the night of Shavu‘ot.” If you’re wondering a) what the heck is a tiqqun, and b) what does all this have to do with henna, hold on to your horses and hopefully all will be explained. I'll first explain why it makes sense, given the symbolic meaning of Shavu‘ot, that there would be a henna connection, and then I'll explore a little-known North African Jewish custom to hold a henna ceremony and mock wedding for children as part of Shavu‘ot celebrations.

So: in mystical Jewish thought, the holiday of Shavu‘ot was interpreted as a kind of symbolic wedding between G!d and the people of Israel. After the Exodus / elopement into the desert, the people and G!d commit to each other at Sinai, a sort of wedding, and so the Torah is a sort of ketubba [wedding contract].

This mystical marriage, in fact, is a moment of cosmic unity, bringing together binaries like the heavens and the earth (through the Torah which descends from heaven and the mountain which reaches up from the earth), the night and the day (which join, through the all-night study, into one dizzying experience of Revelation), and male and female (in the Divine, understood as the mystical ‘groom,’ and the people of Israel, personified as the bride).

Two artists' imaginings of Sinai. Left: Joseph ben David, Altona Haggada,
18th century Germany. Right, Charlton Heston, The Ten Commandments, 1956. 

This idea of bringing together opposites and joining that which was separate is expressed in the idea of tiqqun, which means ‘to return to a state of completion’ or ‘to repair’ (as in the popular social justice slogan tiqqun olam, ‘to heal the world’). Thus the night of Shavu‘ot is a tiqqun, a restoration, a movement towards wholeness and bringing together those things which should be united but are now separate.

But tiqqun has another meaning: to adorn or decorate, especially in the context of marriage. Thus the night of Shavu‘ot is also a tiqqun in the sense that it is the night of adorning the ‘Bride’ (the unified people of Israel, or the Shekhina, the feminine and earthly Divine presence) before the marriage of Revelation. It is, if I may be so bold, the Shekhina’s henna party.

The Zohar, a central text in the Jewish mystical tradition of Qabbala, explains that the process of studying Torah on the night of Shavu‘ot is how we symbolically adorn the bride (Zohar 1:8a; see also the translation and commentary of Daniel Matt, 2004, pp. 51-53): 
On that night, before the Bride will be under the canopy with Her Husband the next day [i.e. the day of Shavu‘ot], all the Companions of the Bridal Palace [i.e. those initiated into the Qabbalistic tradition] need to be with Her all night, rejoicing with Her in Her adornments [tiqqunha] with which She is adorned, studying scripture, from Torah to Prophets, from Prophets to Writings, and biblical midrashim and mysteries of wisdom: for these are Her adornments [tiqqunin] and fineries.

Later in the Zohar we read that Rabbi Shim‘on would say, on the night of Shavu‘ot, “Let us go and adorn [letaqqna] the fineries of the Bride, so that She may be ready to appear before the King with Her fineries and adornments as is proper” (Zohar 3:98a). Thus, on the night of Shavu‘ot we are invited to take part in the adorning of the bride, by studying Torah and readying ourselves as a community, in preparation for the union of Revelation.

Ketubba for Shavu'ot, Tangiers, early
20th century.
But in some communities, the mystical marriage of Shavu‘ot was enacted in more than just a metaphorical fashion, but included actual wedding customs, such as putting up a huppah [wedding canopy] in the synagogue, or reciting a ketubba [wedding contract] between G!d and Israel during the service. Since henna is a primary symbol of weddings, it is not surprising that henna would appear at Shavu‘ot, and since this is a Jewish henna blog, it is not surprising that I’m writing about it! 

In North Africa, the custom arose to have young children commit themselves to Torah and a life of learning, by having them symbolically ‘marry’ each other and take part in the celebrations in the synagogue on Shavu‘ot. Generally, the children participating were those who would be starting school the following year, so around the age of 5.

This ceremony was known as kittab or kettab, from the Arabic word kuttāb [from the root meaning ‘writing’] used colloquially to refer to primary school (see Simon 2014). It served multiple functions at once: it was a rite of passage bringing the child into the world of schooling, it protected them during this time of transition, it incorporated them and their lifecycle event into the celebration of Shavu'ot, and the symbolic marriage was a good omen for a happy life and a successful marriage later in life.

This ‘marriage,’ like true marriages, had a long process of preparation. It began on the Mimouna (the last night of Passover), six weeks before Shavu‘ot — families with little boys would go to the homes of families with little girls to ask for their hand, bringing henna, a ring, and bowls of candies. They would visit again on Lag ba‘Omer (the 33rd day between Passover and Shavu‘ot), bringing cakes, perfume, and more cosmetics. The following Saturday they would dress up the bride’ and ‘groom’ (the bride got a silk scarf, the groom a gold-embroidered belt) and carry them around the neighbourhood, stopping at each house to receive candy and well wishes (Brunot and Malka, 1939, pg. 313).

The day before Shavu‘ot, the children were taken to the bath and dressed in wedding finery. Their families hosted a feast with musicians and singers; in Algeria, the banquet included roasted goat testicles, which were consumed by all present (Briggs and Guède, 1964, pg. 29). 

A boy dressed and adorned for his kettab (note the facial
decorations in harqus and the amulets strung across his
chest), with a younger child, Ghardaia, Algeria,
mid-20th century.
The children’s hands and feet were hennaed, and their hair was cut (often for the first time — traditionally a Jewish child’s hair is not cut until the age of three). Their faces were painted with ḥarqus [a burnt soot ink] on their forehead, nose, temples, and chin, with a design like a row of crosses (+++++). 

The full intention and meaning of these decorations is unclear (Briggs and Guède report general perplexity regarding them, 1964, pg. 29) but they seem to be protective symbols for the children in their liminal state of transition, as well as part of their general adornment. Whether there is any influence from the similar-looking facial tattoos (washm) practiced by their Muslim neighbours is hard to say.

They were dressed in colourful turbans and gold-embroidered velvet coats (Briggs and Guède record that the boys’ shirts were also embroidered with a multi-coloured hamsa and an Hebrew inscription, ‘Long Life and Peace,’ 1964, pg. 29), and weighed down with silver chains, amulets, and protective jewelry. 

The youngsters, now fully adorned, were taken to the synagogue on the day of Shavu‘ot, where they were received with much joy. The rabbi wrote a ketubba [wedding contract] on paper with honey and handed it to the children, who licked off the honey to the sounds of ululation [“yu-yus”] and celebration (Brunot and Malka, 1939, pg. 314; Zafrani 2000: 56). “And if it is so decreed in Heaven,” the Moroccan woman recorded in Brunot and Malka concludes, “when those children are grown, they will be married to each other” (1939, pg. 314).

Children at their kettab, Ghardaia, mid-20th century.

The honey ketubba is not only the sealing of the symbolic marriage, it also represents the official entry of the child into the world of learning, and the ingesting of the words of Torah. This is not unique to North African Jews; there is a similar custom among Ashkenazi Jews that when young children first begin to learn to read, the teacher smears honey on the first page of the book, or on a page with the Hebrew letters written on it, and the child licks the honey off the letters, so that the words of Torah will always be sweet for them (Goldberg, 2003, pp. 85-87). This ceremony was often paired with the occasion of a child’s first haircut, known in Yiddish as upsherin or opshern (Marcus 1996).

Sienna family opsherns! Left: getting my first haircut (and
apparently not happy about it), 1992. Right: my brother Micah looking happy at his
opshern ceremony (probably because he sees candy coming), 1997. 

Unlike the opshern, which is still practiced, the kettab ceremony appears to have fallen by the wayside. Even in the late 1930s, Brunot and Malka already reported that “this custom is not followed except by certain families originally from Fes, of the middle class. It is disappearing rapidly. The people enamoured of modernity, who are numerous, reject this custom” (1939, pg. 314). In rural areas of southeast Morocco and southern Algeria, it appears to have continued into the 1960s. However, it is not widely practiced in contemporary Israel to my knowledge, although Shlomo Bar, the Moroccan-Israeli singer of HaBreira haTiv‘it, has a very well-known song about the ceremony (Etzlenu biKfar Todra, see lyrics here) which has become an iconic song of nostalgia for the lost ways of North African Jewish culture.

The kettab is a beautiful ceremony, and if any of my readers have small children who would like to revive this tradition or incorporate henna into an opshern: contact me and we’ll make it happen! And even if you’re not entering school for the first time, Shavu‘ot is a time for all of us to ‘renew our vows’ and recommit ourselves to the lifelong educational project. 

As a henna artist, I love the idea that tiqqun is both ‘adornment’ and ‘repair’ — that somehow, our work as henna artists can help bring the world closer to a sense of wholeness. I will be leading a henna ceremony in Toronto to prepare for Shavu‘ot, and I encourage other Jewish communities to think about how they can “rejoice with the Bride in Her adornments” and celebrate the joyous union that Revelation brings.

Hebrew letters in henna and ink, Noam Sienna, 2014


Briggs, Lloyd Cabot, and Norina Lami Guède. No More Forever: a Saharan Jewish Town. Cambridge: Peabody Museum, 1964.

Brunot, Louis, and Elie Malka. Textes judéo-arabes de Fes [Judeo-Arabic texts of Fes]. Rabat: École du Livre, 1939.

Goldberg, Harvey. Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life. University of California Press, 2003.

Marcus, Ivan. Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe. Yale University Press, 1996.

Matt, Daniel Chanan. The Zohar, vol. 1: Translation and Commentary. Stanford University Press, 2004.

Simon, Rachel. Kuttāb. Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World (ed. Norman A. Stillman), 2nd ed. Leidon: Brill, 2014.

Zafrani, Haïm. Two Thousand Years of Jewish Life in Morocco. Jersey City: Ktav Publishing House, 2000.

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