One of the most exciting engagement celebrations in the life of an Israeli couple is the Henna ceremony! It’s a custom celebrated by Sephardi Jews which signifies the transition of a couple from a single to married life. This is expressed through unique food, sweets, oriental attire and music. If this is news to you, then… get your oriental on! It’s time you get closely acquainted with the most colorful celebration in Israel.
The henna is an informal celebration that originated from Eastern and North African traditions. Depending on the geographic region, it differs in styles and symbolism which eventually became inseparable of Jewish Mizrahi traditions. The henna used to take place the night before the wedding at the bride’s house, after dipping in the Mikveh. It used to be a small gathering that marked the coming of age of a bride who’s about to assume the responsibility of a wife.
In Indian cultures, the henna ceremony signifies a joyous parting of a daughter from her mother’s nest. Similarly, in Moroccan tradition, the henna is an event that’s meant to celebrate the bride with song and dance as she welcomes her new life as a married woman. In Yemen culture, the henna was meant to unite the couple’s families at the before the official union of souls. Traditionally, the henna ceremony was an intimate event with only close family and some community members. In Israel today, however, the personality of this ancient tradition turned into an excessive celebration of color, music, and abundance of ethnic foods.
The henna today is planned a week or two before the wedding. As opposed to the past, sometimes the henna can reach the capacity of a wedding. And the energies of the night are high! The core of the celebration lies in the symbolism of traditional elements such as sweet goods, colorful oriental attire, spicy foods, dancing to traditional music, and exaggerated jewelry.
Throughout the henna party, the couple changes their clothes to different outfits, one more extravagant than the other. The oriental dresses are typically made of bright and colorful fabrics, embroidered with gold or silver, and set with stones and gems. The flashy attire gives the bride and groom a look of royalty. Sometimes they will enter the dance floor carried high on an upholstered ottoman– like a king and queen! As part of the ‘royal entrance’, guests would change their clothes to similar traditional attire as well (but not as fancy 🙂 ).
As some of the dancing subside, the couple is ushered into an embroidered tent, with lamps, throw-pillows and padded Middle Eastern armchairs. There the couple sits on their designated seats when the gift ceremony begins. Depending on the culture, the couple is gifted with jewelry, typically from gold. At that point, the henna smearing commences. The henna paste is a brown and flowery-scented substance made from the henna plant. It’s applied on the palm of your hand in a round shape which symbolizes good luck and affluence.
The henna ceremony is an exceptionally special and unique event for Sephardic Jews. Some would say the word ‘Henna’ in Hebrew is an acronym for Halla, Nidah, and Candle lighting; the three mitzvot a woman is obligated to undertake as she becomes a wife. Even though each ethnic group has different styles, they all celebrate the same blessings of abundance, prosperity, fertility, and successful married life. With all the ceremonial symbolism and traditional elements, the henna celebration is a once in a lifetime experience. Just as much as the wedding day to follow.