Zeek is pleased to present this excerpt from the forthcoming book, The House of Secrets, an inside look at the mikveh and its rituals, by Varda Polak-Sahm. This section focuses on a henna ceremony practiced mainly by Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews.
The henna ceremony is traditionally part of the fertility rituals that take place on the eve of a wedding, either in the mikveh or at the bride’s home. The Hebrew word for henna (hina) encompasses the essence of the compact between God and the bride that is made on the wedding eve. The letters of the Hebrew word allude to the three commandments in which women are obligated, with the addition of the name of God-het, for challah; yod, for Hakadosh Baruch Hu; nun, for niddah; and heh, for lighting Shabbat candles (hadlakat nerot). If a woman devoutly fulfills the three commandments given to her by God, he will safeguard her from all evil entities, increase the fruit of her womb, and enhance her beauty. Henna is made from the leaves of the kofer, a small shrub or ornamental tree with fragrant flowers that grows primarily in Egypt, India, and North Africa. The dried green henna leaves are ground and soaked in water, which turns them red, and then cooked into a thick paste. The paste is placed in the center of a tray decorated with green leaves and candles. After the bride has immersed, her mother lights the candles, lifts the tray over her own head, and dances a fertility dance to the sound of beating drums. Wiggling her hips, she makes her way to the bride and holds the tray over the bride’s head. All the women trill "Kululululu!" The bride takes the tray from her mother, raises it over her head, and dances with it until she reaches the woman she wishes to bless and holds the tray over her head. The tray lit with candles is passed from hand to hand, above the heads of all the women. The whole time, the women dance to the beat of the drums and are swept into a state of ecstasy. Each time the tray is lifted over the head of the chosen woman, the rest erupt into a joyful "Kululululu!" After all the women have received the blessing, the eldest of the group, the grandmother, dips her fingers into the paste and paints a circle on both of the bride’s hands. In the center of the circle she places a blue candy, to ward off the evil eye. Then the grandmother does the same for all the other women. The henna leaves a prominent reddish-brown stain imprinted on the skin for many days, preserving the memory of the compact while displaying for all the world a seal of approval for the women’s sexual relations with her husband. All the women who receive the mark of the henna are made witnesses to the pact of fertility, love, and loyalty that was sealed in the ritual immersion in the mikveh. The dry, infertile material symbolizes the virgin girl who is not yet a woman; she is an unripe fruit. Through the moistening and cooking process, the dry, green henna is transformed into moist, red henna, symbolizing the fertile woman brimming with life and vitality. The henna turns red, the color that symbolizes the fertility of Mother Earth-red like the blood that is crucial for the renewal of fertility. Symbolically, the transformation process undergone by the henna is identical to what happens to the bride’s body in the mikveh. She arrives from her mother’s home "green" and unripe, and after immersing in the warm water, becomes "red" and ripe. The male side is represented in this "cooking" process by the mother-in-law, who prepares the henna, symbolically strengthening her son’s fertility by accelerating the bride’s fertility potential. The henna ceremony also highlights the community’s involvement in the bride’s physical and symbolic transformation. An important part of the henna ritual is the cooking of festive foods by the women themselves, which enhances the joy derived from the preparations for this traditionally all-female event. Nowadays, the henna ceremony may be a large celebration geld at a fancy banquet hall or other venue, with many guests of both genders. This party is usually held about a week before the wedding, and thus is not connected with the bride’s immersion. "The real henna ceremony is when the bride returns from the mikveh and puts on the henna," Aunt Sophie explained to me. "Then the groom is not around, whether he’s Yemenite or Moroccan or Ashkenazi. Not only in the mikveh is the groom forbidden to come near his bride, but also that whole night and the day before the wedding. But these days very few people obey the prohibition against being together. Most ignore the custom, and the bride sees the groom after the henna celebration." Sophie also tells me about the magical properties of the henna. According to the traditional Jewish superstition, demons lie in wait during times of transition, when humans are weak and sensitive. The wedding eve is a perilous time for the couple, who are separated from one another, because the demons, who need humans in order to reproduce, try to mate with each of them. The word "henna" itself is thought to contain a special magical quality that keeps the demons away. "They used to put this green, magic powder in all the corners of the house, to keep the demons away from the people," Aunt Sophie said excitedly. "The henna fights off the evil spirits." "Why don’t they leave the henna around the house in Israel like they did in Morocco?" "Because this party they throw today is not a real henna night. It’s like a separation party from the family, from the friends and neighbors. The real henna ceremony is when the bride comes back from the mikveh, when they put the henna on her, tie a cloth around it, and her parents lock up the house and sleep there with her, to guard her from the demons. The groom does the same thing in his house. His mother brings a little of the henna from the bride’s house, puts it on him, covers it up, and he sleeps there with it the whole night, together with his best man, who’s accompanied him for all seven days before the wedding. The two of them share the same bed. That was the custom in our community."
The Henna Ceremony is reprinted from The House of Secrets by Varda Polak-Sahm, Copyright © 2009 by Varda Polak-Sahm, Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston. Get your copy at http://www.beacon.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=2053
Henna Hands image by Rashmi Nawa, Irving Texas Rashmi’s website is Heena Designs at http://heenausa.com/HeenaUSA/service.aspx