Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Noam Sienna about his research and discoveries regarding henna in the Middle East and Mediterranean, and he shared some interesting things about the practice in the Jewish communities with regards to Passover:
“In Jewish communities, henna was not done during Passover, but rather right before. Because henna is made from dried and ground henna leaves (and not a grain product), it is not technically chametz or leaven. But it seems that because the process to make the henna dye resembles the making of dough for bread, it was considered to be analogous to chametz and therefore not permitted during the Passover holiday. Anthropologist Erich Brauer observed among Kurdish Jews in the 1940s that when making henna, they mixed henna powder with water and kneaded it in a bowl with sumac, an acidic spice; it was then left to sit for several hours or overnight to allow the henna to break down into a strong dye. Even though no rising or fermentation process took place, this process was referred to as hamirit hinna (‘henna’s yeast’) and therefore seen as inappropriate for Passover. In effort to use up their henna, early on the 14th of Nissan (the morning of the eve of the Seder) Kurdish and Moroccan Jews would apply it to their hair, hands, and feet, which would generally last one good week — the length of time of the holiday.
Henna also occasionally appeared at the Mimounah — a unique North African festival immediately following Passover. (Perhaps it doesn’t appear more often because they had painted themselves right before the holiday, and therefore, their hands would still have had the stains.) Passover begins the fifty-day countdown to Shavuot (a harvest festival also commemorating the giving of the Torah), and on Mimounah there was a ritual of sending henna between boys and girls around the age of five, to mark the beginning of what was seen as an ‘engagement’ period between them and the Torah that would culminate in Shavuot. This union would be played out between a young boy and a young girl, whereby the family of the ‘groom’ would send henna, candies, and jewelry to the family of the ‘bride’ on Mimounah, followed by a mock ‘wedding’ on Shavuot (with the hope that perhaps one day when they are older — God willing — they will actually get married).”