(Photo: a contemporary henna piece with the Hebrew alphabet, Noam Sienna, 2015.)
All About Jewish Henna
I can’t believe I almost let Preservation Day go by without talking about Jewish henna… So there’s a reason why my url is jewishhenna — I research and practice Jewish henna! Well, I research a lot of things (and do a lot of things too) but an awful lot of my time is Jewish henna. What is Jewish henna, you ask?
Well, I take a pretty maximalist definition — Jewish henna includes any tradition or practice that uses henna (to dye skin, hair, or even objects) that I have evidence for from a Jewish community. Evidence can be photographs, written records, artistic depictions, folk songs, recorded memories, or even archaeological remains! I’ve been collecting evidence for about 8 years now so I’ve amassed quite a bit. This research has produced (so far): my undergraduate honours thesis (168 pages), my website and blog, several conference papers, an encyclopedia entry, and some articles in press… I’m hoping one day to publish a book on the topic, G!d-willing.
The History of Jewish Henna
To briefly summarize thousands of years of history: the oldest records of henna originate from Egypt and the Levant… We know it was used in ancient Egypt all the way from the predynastic period onwards for hair, nails, and skin, but unfortunately we haven’t managed to decipher any textual records to it yet. It was also used by ancient Canaanites (who referred to it with the Semitic root kpr) and presumably the Israelites too. It’s mentioned in the TaNaKh [Hebrew Bible] using the Hebrew word kopher — the root, kpr, has to do with smearing or covering, so this is possibly a reference to spreading henna paste on skin.
Henna quickly spread across the Roman empire, and by the early Islamic period henna was being used throughout North Africa as well as the Arabian peninsula. Jews and pagans used it as a sign of celebration and beauty, and it quickly took on important status among Muslims as well. In the Middle Ages henna was an important commodity, traded by Jewish merchants across the Mediterranean from North Africa and the Levant to southern Europe. In ketubbot [marriage contracts] from the Cairo Geniza, we have the first records of henna being used in a pre-wedding ceremony, where it was recorded that the payment for the henna ritual was owed by the groom’s family, “as is customary.”
(Photo: hennaed drums in the Golden Haggadah, Barcelona, ca. 1420.)
Henna use, both for everyday adornment and for ritual purposes, quickly spread throughout the Diaspora and was an established custom among the Jews of Morocco and other North African communities, the Levant and Mediterranean basin, the Arabian Peninsula, and Western, Central and South Asia. Henna was used by some Jewish communities as part of everyday adornment, dyeing hands, feet, nails, and hair; other communities used henna as part of ritual celebrations and holidays. The most significant use of henna in Jewish communities, however, is as part of a pre-wedding ceremony.
(Photo: Moroccan Jewish couple — notice the bride’s hennaed hands; Rabat, ca. 1911, by J. B. Morana.)
In henna-using Jewish communities, henna was a crucial aspect of the preparations for a Jewish wedding, and often defined the structure of the wedding festivities, from the beginning (marked by the sending of henna from the groom to the bride) through the climax (the main henna ceremony itself) to the end (when the last remnants of henna wore off the skin). Furthermore, henna was used to mark the actors in a variety of other lifecycle events and passage rituals, such as birth, weaning, entering the school system, puberty, and coming out of mourning. It was also used at holiday celebrations and other happy occasions. The symbolism of henna in these Jewish communities had many different meanings, but it is clear that it had four overarching functions:
- First, the henna’s staining of skin was seen as beautifying, both as daily adornment and for weddings;
- Second, henna was a sign of celebration and happy occasions, and so appeared particularly at any joyous time (known as a simha in Hebrew) and was often forbidden during mourning;
- Third, the materiality of henna was thought as protective against negative forces and the Evil Eye, and was especially important for people undergoing a passage ritual;
- Finally, henna was seen as an aid in transforming and guiding the actors into the structure of their new social roles, perhaps due to henna’s own process of transformation from plant to stain, from green to red to brown to orange and then fading away.
(Photo: a Yemenite Jewish bride from central Yemen, with hennaed hands, shortly after ‘aliya, mid-20th century.)
For More About Jewish Henna
- Traditional Clothing for Jewish Henna Parties
- Traditional Food for Jewish Henna Parties
- A Jewish Moroccan Henna Song
- A Medieval Jewish Prescription for Henna
- Medieval Jewish Poetry with Henna
- Jewish Henna in Egypt
- Jewish Henna in Yemen
- Jewish Henna in Afghanistan
- Jewish Henna in Turkey
- Jewish Henna in Algeria
- Ashkenazi Encounters with Henna
- Henna for Purim
- Henna for Passover
- Henna for Shavuot
And of course, I always welcome questions and feedback! I’m happy to answer any of your questions and I love hearing about family henna traditions.