Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Henna traditions and Hametz


 Jewish singers in the 1930s, Tissint, Morocco




Did you know Henna dye is associated with Passover, although Jews did consider it Hametz (leaven, and therefore Henna preparation was forbidden during the week-long holiday)? Henna is also associated with the exuberance of the Song of Songs, which is read at this time of year. Fascinating post at Eshkol Hakofer (with thanks: Michelle) :


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.  

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I suppose the prohibition against henna preparation during Pesach may have had to do with the vessel used to prepare it in. To prevent any contamination by hametz, irrespective of henna not being a grain or levening agent, they would have needed a dedicated vessel for use during Pesach. So for practical purposes, it only made sense to apply the stuff well before the onset of Pesach and pack the vessel away with everything else prohibited.