a blessing on your heads

parshat vayechi

The Jews have a rich liturgy, but most of the prayers are innovations of the Rabbis from the first century and forward.  The standard formula for a blessing beginning with “Blessed art thou oh Lord our God” is certainly not found in the Hebrew bible.  The Psalms found throughout the prayer book are technically not prayers but “verses of song”.  The Kiddush on Friday nights which begins with a recitation of the biblical account of the sanctification of the seventh day after six days of creation bears witness to this event and is not technically a prayer although it is followed by one.  Even the Sh’ma Yisrael is not actually a prayer, although it’s recitation is prescribed twice a day. Deuteronomy 6: 6-7

Similarly the recitation of the First Fruits where the Bible (Deuteronomy 26: 3,5) actually provides the liturgical text is less of a prayer and more of a testimonial.

There are only two liturgical texts in the Hebrew Bible which have been preserved in the prayer book; the priestly blessing and the blessing that Jacob gave his two grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh.

The one has all the grandeur we would expect from a biblical blessing:

The LORD bless thee, and keep thee; The LORD make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The LORD lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. (Numbers 6:24–26)

The other seems to have been written by Leonard Cohen’s “little Jew who wrote the Bible”:

“God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh”

The one blessing is said only by the Priestly caste, once in the Temple and now; daily in Israel or on holidays in the decrepit diaspora.  The other blessing, by parents of every caste, in every traditional Jewish home and every Friday night.

Here’s the context of this pithy little parental prayer:

1 And it came to pass after these things that one said to Joseph: ‘Behold, thy father is sick.’ And he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. 5 And now thy two sons, who were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine. 10 Now the eyes of Israel were dim for age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near unto him; and he kissed them, and embraced them. 13 And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near unto him. 14 And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands wittingly (literally; with sechel – common sense); for Manasseh was the first-born. 15 And he blessed Joseph, and said: ‘The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God who hath been my shepherd all my life long unto this day, 16 the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.’ 17 And when Joseph saw that his father was laying his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it was evil in his eyes, and he held up his father’s hand, to remove it from Ephraim’s head unto Manasseh’s head. 18 And Joseph said unto his father: ‘Not so, my father, for this is the first-born; put thy right hand upon his head.’ 19 And his father refused, and said: ‘I know it, my son, I know it; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.’ 20 And he blessed them that day, saying: ‘By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.‘ And he set Ephraim before Manasseh. (Genesis 48: 1 -20)








The truth is that the blessing: “God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” is a culmination of all the blessings of the Book of Genesis, a book which could just as easily be called the Book of Choosing. God chose Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and now two children, born in a strange land.  Two nondescript kids who are never mentioned again, didn’t amount to anything of note and who could be typecast as either the simple son or son who doesn’t know how to ask, of the Haggadah.

Ephraim and Manasseh, in that order, are the culmination of the patriarchal narrative because, their choice, in that order, gives finality to the rejection, not of the birthright, but of a sense of entitlement.  This rejection is the essence of Genesis.  Rather than select the blessing of Abraham who is blessed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and whose seed shall possess the gate of his enemies (Genesis 22; 17), Jews who shall wander as strangers in strange lands will take Ephraim and Manasseh as their model… Little Big Men.

In a narrative full of sibling rivalry, more than Oedipal complexities, two brothers finally, both receive a blessing, together. In a narrative where the chosen son is given preference, here the chosen son; Joseph, is ignored… it’s not about you, it’s about the future, the generations to come, the unknown and that which lies beyond our control… your grandchildren.

I’m reminded of a comment by the Rabbi of my youth; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin who said something to the effect that, Hitler declared you a Jew if you had a Jewish grandparent, so who is a Jew? He who has a Jewish grandchild.

So let’s bless our children every Sabbath eve for the children we pray they will have.  Let’s bless them not because we hope that they will be stars or because they will become masters of anything, let alone the universe, but because they will remain true to themselves and what is best of their patrimony.  Let us bless them not because they will walk with a sense of entitlement but because they will walk as strangers in a strange and mysterious world full of awe and wonder. Let us bless them not as priests, but as Jacob and other little, simple Jews who wrote the Bible, with sechel.

And as anyone who has attempted to raise kids, let alone grandkids… especially in this crazy world we live in… let us pray for mazel and hope along with Jacob, that there are angels above who will protect them and us, from all evil!


Filed under Bible, Chosen People, divine birth, Israel, Judaism, Religion, Sabbath, Shabbat, Torah

5 responses to “a blessing on your heads

  1. pablo1paz

    Thank you for noting what i’ve been making a theme in my Torah classes this season: although halakhah says the oldest son inherits the double portion, from Abraham on it is the second or younger son, not the Bikhor, who inherits the blessing; and what wonderful melodrama plays out around that until Ephraim, the younger son of the next to youngest son of the younger son of the younger son, ends up with the blessing [is it true the Samaritans are the final remnant of the tribe of Ephraim?]
    I have my students writing, now as we end Bereishit, a personal midrash based on the most beautiful scenes …to me: Yitzchaq and Yishmael together burying their father in Machpelah, Esaw embracing Ya’aqov (recently renamed Yisrael) after vowing to murder him, saying, “To see your face is better than seeing God!”, Yosef saying to his brothers: “You meant it for evil but God has made it for good — there is nothing to forgive.” My hope is that they learn a little about forgiveness and reconciliation and what it takes to make peace.
    Indeed we must learn not to hang onto our desires for teh future, but just bless our grandchildren to be a blessing as well.

  2. I almost read ALL of this one! Shabbat shalom from Africa Rebbe Shtern!

  3. orna

    That’s the most beautiful insightful post I have read.

  4. Charles Stern

    Dad – What a beautiful sentiment! Looking forward to blessing the boys tonight with these thoughts in mind.

    Rabbi Riskin also provides a similar reason for blessing sons to make them like Ephraim and Menashe (copied here).

    How would you explain the blessing for a daughter to make her like the matriarchs?

    • What a post to have my kids comment on …. i am the one who is blessed!

      To answer your question… the reason that the boys blessing is what it is, is because the text of the Torah prescribes it: ‘By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh”. There is no similar prescription for daughters, so the Rabbis scripted the daughters blessing in a logical fashion… after the matriarchs….. The question that i have tried to shed some light on, is why the biblical author didn’t also prescribe a logical blessing … i.e. to make our sons like the patriarchs.

      But you raise an interesting question.. and that is, how old is the blessing of the daughters? does it appear in (e.g.) Saadia Gaon’s Siddur? If it is really old, then it is an early example of innovations in our liturgy of gender inclusive formulas….

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