The book of Genesis ends with the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, the blessings that each of the 12 sons receives from Jacob and the deaths of both Jacob and Joseph. The scene is being set for the next stage in Jewish history, where the Jews who have come to settle in Egypt will be enslaved by a new Pharoah.
Every Friday night before we begin the Kiddush and make the Hamotzi over the bread, we give our children a blessing. This is based on the words of blessing from this week’s parsha where Jacob puts his hands on the heads of the sons of Joseph, the two grandchildren that were born in Egypt. Before he blesses them, he also gives them a hug.
We put our hands over our children’s heads and say the following:
For boys – “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
For girls – “May God bless you like Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah.”
The verses are then followed by the priestly blessing:
יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ – May the LORD bless you and guard you –
(“Yevārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā …)
May the LORD make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you –
יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
(“Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāv ēlekhā viḥunnékkā …)
May the LORD lift up His face unto you and give you peace –
יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
(“Yissā Adhōnāy pānāv ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm.”)
If you have not tried this custom yet, I encourage you to try it. It brings special attention to our children at the Friday night table, and it also reminds us that no matter what type of week we have had, we have been blessed with having children and family.
Why did Jewish tradition assign this particular blessing, of being like Ephraim and Menashe as the blessing for the children? One idea is that Ephraim and Menashe were the first two Jewish children born outside the land of Israel. As Jewish parents we need to bless our children, asking God to help them keep their identity and values intact and secure. We are faced daily with temptations and challenges from the world which surrounds us, and we pray that our children will have the strength to know who they are as Jews. My husband, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, suggests that the action of hugging is a part of the reconciliation between Jacob and his family. The hug that Jacob gives to Ephraim and Menashe before the blessing is a hug of bonding. Their grandfather, Jacob, tries to bridge the cross- generational and culture gaps, and explain to his Egyptian born grandchildren what his family’s legacy is really about. Beginning our Friday night meal with a hug and blessing teaches our children about love and about being proud of their Jewish heritage.
Another idea that I came across suggests that this is the only example in the Torah and Bible of a grandparent blessing grandchildren. The idea here is that at times there is tension and stress with our own children, but not so with grandparents.
“When a grandparent blesses a grandchild he or she does so with a full heart. Anyone who has had the privilege of having grandchildren will immediately understand the truth and depth of this explanation…. According to the Babylonian Talmud, the greatest privilege is to teach your grandchildren Torah. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the greatest privilege is to have your grandchildren teach Torah to you. This is one argument about which no grandparent will have the slightest difficulty in saying that both are true. To bless grandchildren and be blessed by them, to teach them and to be taught by them – these are the highest Jewish privilege and the serene end of Jacob’s troubled life.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks essay –Parshat Vayechi).
May we all be blessed with family and friends with whom we can share hugs, the teachings of Torah and the special nature of Shabbat.