Why Do We Insist on Authenticity?

This morning I got involved in a conversation regarding the Sephardi minhag of the Henna Ceremony, where the bride (and groom?) gets a little henna placed on her palms before the wedding. A friend of mine, who was there, had just gone to one, and had brought back with him the “explanation” that the bride and groom and given out to people. In there, there was the “source” for this minhag, that explained (I’m paraphrasing) that: there are three mitzvoth that are incumbent upon women, Challah (separating a portion of dough before baking bread), niddah (the laws of ritual purity) and hadlakat neirot (lighting candles for Shabbat). The Hebrew letters that correlate to the first word of each of these mitzvoth, if you name them in this specific way, are chet, nun, heh, which spells Chinah (Henna). So, as a symbol of the marrying girl’s something about something about the mitzvoth, we put some Henna on her.

Beautiful, right? Well, I called BS right away. Here’s why:

“Henna has been used to adorn young women’s bodies as part of social and holiday celebrations since the late Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean. The earliest text mentioning henna in the context of marriage and fertility celebrations comes from the Ugaritic legend of Baal and Anath, which has references to women marking themselves with henna in preparation to meet their husbands, and Anath adorning herself with henna to celebrate a victory over the enemies of Baal. Wall paintings excavated at Akrotiri (dating prior to the eruption of Thera in 1680 BCE) show women with markings consistent with henna on their nails, palms and soles, in a tableau consistent with the henna bridal description from Ugarit. Many statuettes of young women dating between 1500 and 500 BCE along the Mediterranean coastline have raised hands with markings consistent with henna. This early connection between young, fertile women and henna seems to be the origin of the Night of the Henna, which is now celebrated world-wide.” (Wikipedia, internal references removed)

(FYI, 1680 BCE is about 32 years after the birth of Yitzchak, about 5 years before the Akeida. 1500 BCE is about 180 years before Yetziat Mitzrayim. 500 BCE is about the time Bayis Sheini is built. 700 years before Rebbe redacts the mishna.)

Women had been getting decorated with Henna to mark special occasions, especially weddings, for thousands of years before “Jews” even existed, much less started doing it.

I think we can debunk this notion of Henna being an intrinsically Jewish idea, and accept the fact that bridal henna is an ancient, pan-cultural idea that was accepted/co-opted by early Jews, and given a “Jewish idea” much after the fact. Not to mention that if you decide to call “hadlakat neirot” something else, like “neirot Shabbat” then you get Chanan. Which I guess means Chanan gets to decorate the women? Or call “nidda” taharas hamishpacha and you get Chatan. OMG, that’s so holy, she’s totally marrying a Chatan!)

And even when I presented this to my friends with whom I was discussing this, there maintained this adherence to idea, that perhaps this minhag originated with Sephardim (a group that doesn’t come into existence until about 3000 years after the first recorded uses of Henna) and that they chose Henna for the “three mitzvot.”  I was asked why I can’t accept that as a possibility.

Because it’s not possible.  The Sephardim who do it maintain an ancient custom. The use of henna can’t be tied to the three mitzvot because it was in use well before there were three mitzvot.  Why do they use Henna? Two reasons: (i) because that’s what you use to dye skin; (ii) because that’s what had been used for thousands of years beforehand. Not because of a weak acronym.  There’s no intrinsic holiness to a co-opted minhag.

And yet, intelligent, modern, educated Jews insist on clinging to false notions of mystical letter connections and talismans and such. Why? Why is that so important? Does it change anything if we accept that we are doing something not because of some loose-concoction of letters but rather because it is an ancient and beautiful custom that makes the bride feel beautiful, decorated and extremely special before her wedding? Does it make it a bad thing if the connection is to ancient fertility customs and human sensuality instead of mitzvot? I think it makes it better.

But what do I know? I’m just some kofer who doesn’t accept the mystical, kabbalistic, inherent holiness of randomly selected letter combinations.

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10 responses to “Why Do We Insist on Authenticity?

  1. 1) Its not only modern, Henna-type customs. An argument could be made that the Gemarah often does something similar, in that it will take almost-random pesukim as the ‘basis’ for other customs/halakhot, when it seems that the Halakha comes from tradition/Rabbinic decisions, and they are “hanging” it on a Pasuk

    2) People aren’t only doing it because it makes the bride feel beautiful. People also do it because that is what their mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, etc…have done since forever. Using religious/mystical language is just another way to weave it into ‘tradition’

  2. Don’t let this bother you so much. The tradition originates millenia ago b/c the henna plant is known for it’s fertility and so those ancient cultures connect it to a young bride whom they hope will be similarly furtile. Sephardic Jews come along and adopt this tradition b/c it is local custom and then, years later, tie it to their particular religion using this weak acronym as a cute way of highlighting a woman’s duties as a married woman. Your friends that insist that this is more than a cute acronym applied long after the tradition began are simply wrong. I don’t, however, think there is anything wrong with applying the acronym retroactively to say that’s how Sephardic Jewish girls tie the Henna ceremony/impending marriage to their particular religion. It’s cute wordplay but has taken on some significance.

    The month of “Elul” is a perfect example of this. The original word in aramaic means “search” while the later hebrew meaning uses the acronym Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li to explain the title of that month (Wikipedia). While the aramaic is the original meaning the newer acronym has nice meaning/significance as well even if applied years after the title was originally created.

    While there may not be “intrinsic holiness to a co-opted minhag” there can be holiness that has been added over the years through tradition especially when Sephardic Jews have incorporated the ceremony into their religion. I’m sure a similar argument could be made for many traditions we have like the badekin or the yichud room which are now part of the Jewish wedding ceremony (and are required by halacha) but probably have roots that go deeper than when they were indoctrinated into halacha. Covering ones head as a deference to a being above I believe has origins older than our tradition to do so and yet it has been incorporated into halacha.

    BTW, just this past shabbos someone told me that people attribute the name Chanah (chet, nun, heh) to these three mitzvot. While they named their daughter after a deceased grandmother named Chanah (who I assume going back many generations was originally named for the Chanah found in Tanach) they heard that there is an added “significance” b/c of the acronym.

  3. Here’s the thing: the more this sort of thing happens, and is accepted by otherwise intelligent people as fact, the more this religion becomes about cute divrei torah instead real religion. This thing we do shouldn’t be about clever wordplay or numerology. Those themselves are most likely concepts adopted from pagan worship.

    Sure, a lot of the practices we have today are co-opted from older, mostly pagan, practices. And I’m not saying to reject them completely. But shouldn’t there at least be a level of honesty involved? If you’re right, that something attains a certain level of holiness after years of Jewish practice (and incorporation into the corpus of Halachah, e.g. Chanuka Candles) then that’s fine. Say “we do this because it’s a beautiful ritual that was adopted by our forbears and that we do it today in the name of tradition.” Don’t say “we do this because the letters of “Henna” is the same as three mitzvot” because that’s not why you do it.

    My problem with this (and the “added significance” your friends attribute) is that it detracts from the real beauty (and very often, the real meaning). There’s is beautiful continuity in naming a child for an ancestor. There’s also beauty in the story of Chanah (and the likely derivation of her name from the word Chein, meaning Grace), and that we still name children for her, on a certain level. Why detract from that with number games and clever word-play? Just the same, there’s beauty to Bridal Henna. Why ruin it with word games?

  4. Wikipedia is amazing. They have “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li” on there?

  5. Here’s the thing: the more this sort of thing happens, and is accepted by otherwise intelligent people as fact, the more this religion becomes about cute divrei torah instead real religion

    My question to you is: What is real religion anyway? Again, what about the fact that (Lfi HaRaMBaM), much of what we nowadays call chukkim are actually practices that had been pagan, and co-opted by the Torah? Or that the Gemarah is full of linguistic bases not actually implied by the original sources? Is it legitimate because it was done many years ago, and canonized into tradition, while Henna was not similarly canonized?

  6. Here’s the thing: the more this sort of thing happens, and is accepted by otherwise intelligent people as fact, the more this religion becomes about cute divrei torah instead real religion

    My question to you is: What is real religion anyway? Again, what about the fact that (Lfi HaRaMBaM), much of what we nowadays call chukkim are actually practices that had been pagan, and co-opted by the Torah? Or that the Gemarah is full of linguistic bases not actually implied by the original sources? Is it legitimate because it was done many years ago, and canonized into tradition, while Henna was not similarly canonized?

    Again, what is ‘real’ religion, and what makes this simply a cute vort while something else isn’t?

  7. ‘Don’t say “we do this because the letters of “Henna” is the same as three mitzvot” because that’s not why you do it.’

    I agree. People should recognize that is it simply a cute addition and not the source. And I agree that many Orthodox Jews in today’s culture have taken traditions (some of recent vintage) and made them into Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai and that this is a big problem b/c it lessens the importance of true mitzvot from sinai.

    I have always felt that the reason some (and I am in no way saying many or even more than a few) chasidim eat non-kosher when on vacation or on the road (I’ve heard dozens of such stories) b/c to them eating neveilah is akin to having non-cholov yisroel milk or non-yoshon flour which they know is not so bad when on the road. They are not taught the difference.

  8. To clarify, the last comment is my own speculation/perception and may be factually wrong. I would love to hear from our chasidish commentors.

  9. My question to you is: What is real religion anyway?

    AJ, you can dispute the authenticity of the Torah all you want. Talk about documentary hypothesis and co-opted pagan rituals until you are blue in the face. That’s nowhere near my point. Obviously, if you want to have a discussion about Judaism, you have to accept a certain starting point that the revelation at Sinai is true and indisputable.

    So to answer your questions, what’s real religion? Torah is real religion. Maybe animal sacrifice and red heiffers are originally pagan, but yes, they’ve been canonized. And notice, the torah doesn’t give them a reason. There’s no attempt to cover the fact with a “the letters of parah aduma stand for” some such nonsense.

    What I am railing against is a modern phenomenon; one the one hand, the need to apply cutesy, childish “meanings” and “extras” onto religious (or not) practices and on the other hand, the refusal of people to see past those cutesy add-ons for the true value of things.

  10. I don’t dispute the authenticity of the Torah with DH at all? I’m just quoting Rambam (not a Kofer according to most) who describes many Chukkim as co-opted pagan rituals.

    And if Torah is real religion, then what is Talmud? What about all that we do which is not in Tanakh at all, but is only written in the Talmud?

    When the Gemarah explains the idea that one need not interrupt a mitzvah to do another one (Sukkah 25a) (for ex, one may eat without a Sukkah if one is on a Mitzvah-mission) they say it is based on the Pasuk in Shema “Uvelechtecha Baderech”, specifically saying it comes from the Khaf-Sofit at the end of Uvelechtecha. I can imagine you posting (if you had lived in 500CE in Bavel with a blog) saying “How silly! We need the Khaf-Sofit! Uvelechet?? Thats not a word?!?!? Why can’t Rav Huna just admit that its an obvious/smart/clever idea that we’ve been doing since tradition and not need a forced interpretation to hang it on??”. However, I doubt that you’d post that now…

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