There’s a beautiful custom the Jewish people have on Friday evenings, of blessing 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 which asks for God’s protection, blessing, and grace. As the mother of a much-longed-for child, I know the power of feeling that sweet child’s head under my fingers as I bless him and thank God for his existence in my life. I imagine that parents in many centuries before me have had the same depth of feeling as they paused each Shabbat to touch each child, bless him or her, and to thank God for the miracle in their hands.
The biblical source for the boys’ blessing comes from our 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 beforehand. The language is quite beautiful and caused me to wonder what exactly Jacob desired for his grandchildren – and what we pray for today when we bless our own children.
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.'”
But, if this is a blessing for Ephraim and Manasseh, why does the text say, “And he blessed Joseph“? The medieval commentator Ramban provides one answer: “. . .In order to bless Joseph; out of his love for him, he blessed his sons.” And the 17th century 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.” Ramban emphasizes the deep love that Jacob had for his long-lost son Joseph, and Rabbi Horowitz tells us that the greatest blessing Joseph could receive was knowing that his children would become good people. Thus Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh were all blessed by Jacob.
For Jacob, God has been his Shepherd from his birth and throughout his life, watching over him during his difficult physical and emotional journeys. He wishes for Ephraim and Manasseh that same sense of protection and security. Ramban believes that the word for shepherd, “ro’eh“, may be related to the word “ray’ah“, friend, and he sees in the attribute of “shepherd” the qualities of peace and friendship. Perhaps, then, in referring to God as “ro’eh,” Jacob is also wishing the blessings of peace and friendship on Ephraim and Manasseh.
“The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm” could be taken (and is by some commentators) in a literal sense, because Jacob certainly has encountered redeeming angels in his lifetime (on the ladder at Beth El, and before meeting Esau after 20 years), but ultimately an angel is a messenger of God, and as Rashi intimates, God was with Jacob in his times of trouble. 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 God in Whose ways my father Abraham and Isaac walked” is more than just descriptive to Radak, who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries. “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 then 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.” Ramban interprets this to mean 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.” Ephraim and Manasseh have a special relationship with God, a unique history, and a rich tradition which Jacob prays will continue through many descendants, and through fidelity to that tradition of Jacob, his father and his grandfather.
On Friday evenings, as we bless our children – young and old – let us bear in mind Jacob’s prayer for Ephraim and Manasseh. Let us pray that our children will feel the protection, love and peace of God, that they will serve God and God’s creations with full hearts and everyday actions, and that they will be blessed with many descendants, all of whom will proudly carry on the tradition of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.