“Blessing the Children–Revisited”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, is chock-full of blessings. Before his passing, Jacob not only blesses his twelve sons but also blesses his two grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. (See Vayechi 5769-2009).

In Genesis 48:20, the Torah records,וַיְבָרְכֵם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמוֹר, בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ-לֹקִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה , So he [Jacob] blessed them [Joseph’s sons] on that day saying, “By you shall Israel bless saying: ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe.’”

The Ozar Dinim U’minhagim states as follows: It is the custom of parents to bless both their male and female children on the eve of the Sabbath and holidays after evening prayers or upon entering the house. Grown children also receive a blessing from their parents. Those who bless, place their hands on the head of those to be blessed and say: יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ-לֹקִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה , May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe. Females are blessed with the formula: “May G-d make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” This blessing is then followed with the priestly blessing: “May G-d bless you and keep you. May G-d make His face shine toward you and show you grace. May G-d lift up His countenance toward you and grant you peace.”

It is then customary for parents to add a personal blessing. For young children, it is customary to say the conclusion of Jacob’s blessing to Joseph’s sons (Genesis 48:16): הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי , May the angel who redeems me from all evil, bless the lads, and may my name be declared upon them, and the names of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land.

Some have the custom to bless married children with two hands and single children with one hand.

Rabbi Jacob Emden writes in his siddur, that it is Jewish custom to bless the children on the eve of the Sabbath. Both parents and teachers bless their children and students after evening prayers because the splendor of G-d is abundant at that time. There are those who have the custom to repeat the blessing upon children on Saturday night as well, at the close of the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath is considered an especially propitious time for blessings, because the negative spirits are rendered powerless on the Sabbath, and cannot interfere with the blessings.

The Chatam Sofer suggests that during the week, adults, who are preoccupied with earning a living, often rush through their prayers without proper focus. On Sabbath and holidays, they have the opportunity and the time to bless their children properly. Others maintain that weekdays are often tense and stress-filled times, and parents are unable to muster the proper attitude that is necessary to bless children. Sabbath brings with it its own joy, rendering it a most propitious time for blessings.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov argues, that in ancient times, it was very rare for children to be blessed by their parents. He even suggests that had Rebecca and Isaac blessed their children regularly, the rivalry between Jacob and Esau would never have developed, since Esau would have been blessed many times and would not have been envious of his brother Jacob’s blessings.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains why girls are blessed in the names of the Matriarchs, whereas boys are not blessed in the names of the Patriarchs, but rather in the names of the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe. He suggests that the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe, is chosen over the Patriarchs because Ephraim and Menashe were the first siblings between whom there was no rivalry and the first where the birthright was not contested. “What better way to bless one’s children than with a blessing of peace?”

Senator Joseph Lieberman in his book on the Sabbath, The Gift of Rest, writes: “Of all the things that observant Jews do on the Sabbath…I would put blessing your family high on the list. It is a priceless moment of connection that no matter what has happened during the week, the parent feels blessed to have that child…As a parent you know that weeks can go by when you think of your children less as a blessing and more as problems to be solved…Stopping to bless your children once a week makes us pause to appreciate how blessed we are to have them in the first place and reminds them of the love we feel for them.”

Nachmanides points out that Jacob’s words, בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל , in you shall Israel invoke blessing, should really be in the plural form, בָּכֶם , rather than the singular, since Jacob is addressing Ephraim and Menashe. The Ramban explains that the phrase “in you” really applies to Joseph, meaning that the nation of Israel will bless itself with Joseph’s children and say to those who are being blessed, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” The greatest blessing that one can bestow upon a person is that he may be like someone who is generally recognized as a blessed person. It is Joseph who serves as a model for all fathers, who is the happiest of fathers. Jacob, in effect, says that every family should hope to have the good fortune that Joseph had, a father who will lead his children to their grandfather for a blessing that will hopefully apply to all generations simultaneously.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch  writes: For Joseph to be the only Jew in Egypt and to still raise children who remain, for all time, the model of Jewish aspiration and blessing, is an achievement worthy of emphasis!

May you be blessed.

Please note: The fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this year on Thursday, December 28, 2017, from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.

Have a meaningful fast.