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.