Gardening: Hametz and henna

One of the plants mentioned in the Song of Songs which represents the male lover, or God, is kofer, which in English is henna.

henna plant 88 (photo credit: )
henna plant 88
(photo credit: )
Some people will do anything to prove their love. Especially the Jewish people; particularly at Pessah time. The annual rituals of rigorous house cleaning and utensil cleansing to banish all traces of hametz (bread and grain products) are not symptoms of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, but rather expressions of an obsessive love for God and a compulsion to do His will. If the one you loved most in the world asked you to hurriedly pack a few meager provisions, abandon your home and head off on a journey into an uncharted desert, would you go? The only thing you could count on would be the constant company of your beloved. This may sound like a crazy idea, one to which only a handful of madly in love young lovers would submit. But now consider that on that first Pessah, over 3,300 years ago, as many as two and a half million men, women and children showed precisely this kind of devotion when they hurriedly left Egypt. Later, God Himself would describe the nation's love-inspired desert trek with these romantic words: "I remember the devotion of your youth, your bridal love, how you followed Me in the desert, in an unsown land" (Jeremiah 2:2). On that first Pessah, the nation of Israel began its love affair with God. Reading Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, is customarily done on the Shabbat that falls during the intermediary days of Pessah. Its breathless descriptions of young love recapture the devotion between God and Israel that made the exodus from Egypt possible. But Pessah ends and, caught up in life's humdrum routine, we run the risk of putting our romance with God on hold for another year. It is perhaps in order to keep this romance constantly fresh and vibrant that we are enjoined to remember the exodus from Egypt every day of our lives. We certainly owe God everything for setting us free three millennia ago, a debt so great that it can never be repaid. Yet, even so, there may always be the nagging "yes, but what has He done for us lately?" reservation in the back of our minds. But if a daily recollection of the exodus can infuse us with the same divine longing and passion that stirred us to drop everything and run off into the desert without any calculation, then we may again feel the true and constant love for God which we experienced so long ago. (The recollection of that love, if nothing else, is guaranteed to put a spring in your step.) In a similar vein, marriage counselors bring distant spouses together by having them recall moments early in their relationship when passion and romance held sway. There is even a custom of reading the romantic Song of Songs each Shabbat eve, perhaps as a reminder that Shabbat should be the most intimate time of the week, both in the relationship between husbands and wives and in the relationship between Jews and God. One of the plants mentioned in the Song of Songs which represents the male lover, or God, is kofer, which in English is henna (Lawsonia inermis). In the opinion of some, henna flowers are the most fragrant in the world, so it would be appropriate that they, in particular, should represent the King of kings. "My beloved is a cluster of henna flowers from the vineyards of Ein Gedi (Song of Songs 1:14)," the maiden (Israel) sighs. Kofer is closely related to the Hebrew words for atonement and forgiveness. According to Rashi, God is here referred to as kofer because of His forgiving quality, especially since His beloved has just described herself as black (with sin). Rashi also sights an aggada that connects the presence of kofer among the grape vines to the fact that "the vineyards of Ein Gedi produce fruit four or five times a year" just as "God forgave Israel many times in the desert." Henna, famous for the compound extracted from its leaves that is used for decorating skin and painting fingernails, can be grown throughout the Land of Israel. Its flowers may be white, yellow, orange or pink. The more tropical the climate, the taller it grows, reaching a maximum height of 20 feet. Typically, it is a shrub of manageable size. It may also be used as a hedge or living fence on account of its thorns, which it produces in its third year of growth. These thorns also symbolize God's protective presence, as when the female lover (Israel) suggests taking shelter "among the henna shrubs (Song of Songs 7:12)." Raw henna compound accumulates in the midrib or main artery of young leaves. If you hold up a young henna leaf, found growing at the terminal end of any shoot, to the light, you will notice dark discoloration in its midrib. The processing of this compound into the paste used for dye or paint, while technologically simple, requires a number of steps. To learn the details of this process, access the Web site at Henna is related to several highly ornamental garden plants. Mexican heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia) and cigar plant (Cuphea ignea) bloom year around and are readily available in nurseries. Mexican heather has delicate foliage, a low mounding growth habit, and pinkish lilac flowers. Cigar or firecracker plant, which grows up to four feet tall, has orange tubular flowers, which glow on their extremities with bands of yellow. Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia), a trailing plant for balcony pots or ground cover, has round, coin-shaped leaves and clear yellow flowers. Crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is a small deciduous tree with pink, red or lavender flowers, a smooth trunk and exfoliating bark.