On Friday evenings it is traditional to bless our children before making Kiddush. We place our hands on the head of each child, and for boys we say, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” For girls we say “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” And for all the children we add the Priestly Blessing, asking for God’s protection, blessing, and grace.
The biblical source for blessing sons at Kiddush comes from today’s parashah. A short time before Jacob dies, he meets Joseph’s children, his grandsons, and in an emotional scene, he says (Genesis 48:20): “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: ‘God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh…'” And so the Jewish people have been using that invocation to bless their children for centuries.
But the content of the blessing to Ephraim and Manasseh actually comes before Jacob speaks to them and the blessing seems to be given to their father initially – in verses 15 and 16, the Torah records: “And he [Jacob] blessed Joseph, saying, ‘The God in Whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God Who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day – The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – Bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.'”
If this is a blessing for Ephraim and Manasseh, why does the text say, “And he blessed Joseph“?
The medieval commentator Nachmanides provides one answer: “. . .Jacob really wanted to bless his beloved Joseph; and out of his love for Joseph, Jacob blessed his sons”. And the 17th c scholar and kabbalist Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz comments: “[Jacob blessed Joseph] in order to show that there is no greater blessing for a father than the wish that his children should take after him and become good people”.
Whatever the reason, Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh were all blessed by Jacob.
The language that he uses in his interaction with the Egyptian influenced Joseph and his completely Egyptian sons is interesting. From his perspective at the end of life, Jacob understands that God has been his Shepherd from his birth and throughout his life, watching over him during his difficult physical and emotional journeys. And so he wishes for Ephraim and Manasseh that same sense of protection and security. Nachmanides suggests that the word for shepherd, “ro’eh“, may be related to the word “ray’ah“, friend and that in referring to God as “ro’eh,” Jacob is also wishing the blessings of friendship on Ephraim and Manasseh.
The image of the Angel, who “has redeemed me from all harm” is traditionally understood literally – Jacob certainly has encountered redeeming angels in his lifetime (on the ladder at Beit El when he left home precipitously, and at the Ford of Jabok the night before meeting Esau when he returned home after 20 years), but ultimately an angel is a messenger of God, and as Rashi understands it, it was God whowas with Jacob in his times of trouble. And this, then, is the particular blessing for Ephraim and Manasseh: that God should be with them, protecting them, encouraging them and supporting them in their times of trouble.
The third portrayal: “The God in Whose ways my father Abraham and Isaac walked” is seen as more than just descriptive to 13th Century scholar David Kimchi (Radak). To him “Walking with God” means serving God in heart and deed, and Radak believes that the root of this service is in the heart. Jacob is thus understood to be praying that Ephraim and Manasseh walk in God’s ways, in their thoughts, intentions, sincerity and day-to-day deeds. What God wants from them should never be far from their minds.
And finally, Jacob prays (Genesis 48:16): “In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”Nachmanidestells us that this means that for Ephraim and Manasseh “their descendants and their names should exist forever, and the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob should forever be upon them.”
All these traditional understandings give us a rich insight into what was in the mind of Jacob, – he was blessing both the oldest son of his beloved wife Rachel and also the descendants of that son with the friendship and nurturing of God, with the protection and encouragement of God, and with the ability to serve God with complete sincerity, and these are things we want for all our children.
But what is so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that we pray to make our children like them? The Torah itself gives us shockingly little information about these two brothers, the sons of Jacob’s favourite son, Joseph, and Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asenat. We know that they lived their entire lives in Egypt, that Manasseh is the older of the two (although some scholars suggest they might have been twins), that they were born before the famine came to Egypt, and that Genesis and Chronicles disagree a bit about whether one of Manasseh’s descendants was his son or grandson. Otherwise, all we have are conjectures based on this one scene at their grandfather’s deathbed.
What was Jacob thinking? What was he doing in adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own and effectively transgressing the generational boundary? And why, after adopting them in verse 5, does he suddenly notice them in verse 8 and ask, “Who are these?”
Jacob is altering the system of inheritance in so many ways in this action – he in effect disinherits Joseph in favour of the two grandchildren, who each become a sort of half-tribe. And then he crosses over his arms while blessing the boys, symbolizing the reversal of the usual pattern of bestowing the greater blessing on the older son. Joseph – the older brother of Rachel’s two boys – protests, but Jacob—a younger brother himself, is happy to subvert the position of the older brother. He’ll bless in his own way, giving priority to the younger son as he himself took priority from his older brother. The scene is reminiscent of his own parental blessing, when his blind father also asked
who it was who was to be blessed, but here everything is explicit and open. It seems that this blessing is less about God acting as supporter, nurturer and protector, and more about the people doing the blessing and those accepting the blessing.
So why Ephraim and Manasseh? Perhaps because they were the first children who had to maintain their identity in a foreign land. Or perhaps because they were the first brothers in the Bible to get along peaceably … Now that siblings have learned to get along, the story of the Jewish people can move to the next stage.
In our time, Rabbi Harold Kushner sees a blessing that is surely relevant for ourselves and our children today: When we say to our children that we would like them to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, two Egyptian born and raised young men, who are yet able to be part of the family of Israel, we are maybe asking for them to maintain their Jewish identities while living fully within our non-Jewish society. May they be like Ephraim and Manasseh, living complex lives with integrity, being fully themselves.
Kushner also sees a blessing in the boys’ relationship with each other. He suggests they become a source of blessing “because they were the first brothers in the Bible to have a good relationship, after the conflicts that marred the lives of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers.” So it’s possible the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh is one of peace and acceptance. When Jacob crosses his hand to bestow the greater blessing on the younger boy, neither boy complains (although their father does). They accept the blessing they are given, and given the lack of a story of brotherly strife, we assume it did not harm their relationship.
Whatever is behind the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, the blessing that we are to repeat to our own sons each week – whether it is an incantation designed to protect our children by calling on God to care for them, or an aspiration that they will grow to live their lives in harmonious relationships, or that they will understand their complex identities in a diverse world, or a formula to remind them of their place in the chain of tradition that connects them to both ancestors and descendants – this is a complex and beautiful ritual.
The blessing to Joseph and his sons is wonderful, and a stark contrast to the blessings Jacob will bestow on his own sons shortly before his death. He must have looked into the future of his grandchildren and seen for them a world where they would carry the message and the memory of the patriarchal promise, the covenant with God. While we may wonder what exactly Jacob understood and hoped for his grandchildren, we should take the opportunity to think too about what we pray for today when we bless our own children. What do we want for our children and what do we want for the children of our community and our society?
While we live, we can invoke and provide a blessing for the next generations. How we choose to do it is up to us.