THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Vayechi – פרשת ויחי
December 22, 2018 – יד טבת תשעט
Blessing the Children
The ancient Israelites valued blessings conferred by fathers upon their children. A cursory reading of the Pentateuch, especially the Book of Genesis, shows how far the early Hebrews would go – resorting even to duplicity — to secure a paternal blessing. Ben Sira succinctly expressed the Jewish view: “For a father’s blessings strengthens the houses of the children (Ecclesiasticus 3:9).” Joseph brought his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to their ailing grandfather. From his deathbed, Jacob blessed his grandsons with words that would famously enter Jewish liturgy: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: ‘God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh ישמך אלקים כאפרים וכמנשה (Genesis 48:20).’”
In the Biblical period, it was likely a popular practice to cite ancient worthies when conferring blessings upon a child. At the wedding of Boaz and Ruth, the townspeople of Bethlehem extended their best wishes to Naomi. “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah… and may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah (Ruth 4:11-12).” In similar fashion, historic villains were cited to express damnation. Ahab son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah son of Maaseiah were false prophets executed by Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah prophesied that the exiled Judahite community in Babylonia would imprecate people by referencing the fate of those charlatans: “May God make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon consigned to the flames (Jeremiah 29:22).”
Pseudo-Jonathan offers more than a plain translation of Genesis 48:20; he notes that the blessing to be like Ephraim and Manasseh is made in reference to an infant on the day of his circumcision, when he is blessed to become a “brother to seven and eight (Pesikta Zutreta).” Those numbers refer to the princes of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who offered their sacrifices on the seventh and eighth days, respectively, of the dedication of the wilderness Tabernacle (Numbers 7:48,54). The wording of this Aggadic text implies that many people did not grasp the cryptic connection between Genesis 48:20 and the liturgy of the brith-milahservice. The Hida (Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulai, 18th century Italy) recorded the custom of some Jews to say about the infant after his entry into the Abrahamic covenant “And there should be fulfilled in him the verse ‘God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’ (Birkei Yosef Yoreh Deah 265:5).” However, no reference to Ephraim and Manasseh remains in the standard Ashkenazic circumcision rite.
The more widely known liturgical appearance of Genesis 48:20 is in the weekly blessing of the children performed at the onset of Shabbat. Parents say to their sons “God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” and to their daughters “God make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.” The blessing concludes with the recitation of the threefold Priestly Benediction: “The Lord bless you and protect you. The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace (Numbers 6:24-26).”
Scholarly literature on the matter tends to focus on the questionable halakhic legitimacy of having non-Kohanic parents invoke the priestly blessing (see Ketubot 24b). Various legal loopholes and work-arounds are offered as post factum justification for the cherished custom. Of greater interest, arguably, is the question of the custom’s origins and why it is done on Friday nights in particular.
The earliest reference to a weekly blessing of the children is found in the writings of Haim ben Betzalel, brother of the Maharal of Prague (late 16th century). He recorded the custom of fathers’ blessing their sons and rabbis’ blessing their disciples on Shabbat, a time when the conduits to the wellspring of blessing are open (Sefer Ha-Chaim, Parnasah v’Khalkalah 6). He also posited a sociological basis for the custom. There is a natural tendency for fathers to become angry at their children and to curse them. The same holds true for teachers in relation to their students. By pre-empting the following week’s imprecation with a Sabbath blessing, the later utterances are robbed of their efficacy in keeping with the Scriptural dictum “when He blesses, I cannot reverse it (Numbers 23:20).”
Moses ben Hanokh Altshuler wrote this in his 1602 Yiddish-language book of customs: “Before the children can walk, they should be carried on Sabbath and holidays to the father and mother to be blessed. After they are able to walk, they shall go of their own accord with bowed body and shall incline their heads and receive the blessing (Brantspiegel, Ch. 43).” Altshuler portrays the custom as a manifestation of filial piety, an opportunity for children to fulfill the fifth commandment of the Decalogue. Notably, the mother, too, confers blessings upon her children. In contrast, other rabbinic works imply that only the male head of household offers the blessing. Missing from both Sefer Ha-Chaim and Brantspiegelis any indication when during the Sabbath the inter-generational reconciliation and bonding should take place.
In 1603 Johannes Buxtorf (German Hebraist 1564-1629) published Synagoga Judaica, an exhaustive description of German-Jewish religious practices. The chapter addressing Sabbath preparation states: “After the Sabbath eve synagogue service is finished, they seek their home. In parting from one another they wish each other not good-day nor good-night, but a happy Sabbath. The parents bless their children, the teachers bless their disciples.” Buxtorf is the earliest writer to state that the weekly Sabbath blessing of children takes place on Friday night. But he does not offer a mystical reason for the custom. It appears simply to be part of the broader practice of extending good wishes to fellow Jews while departing from the synagogue after services.
Aaron Berekhiah of Modena, writing in his 1626 treatise Ma’avar Yabok, suggested that the custom of blessing children on Friday night developed because the harmful and satanic forces inclined to challenge those blessings are banished to the abyss on Sabbath eve and are, therefore, incapable, at that time, of interfering. Aaron Berekiah was the first to openly call for the blessing of daughters as well as for the laying of hands on the heads of those being blessed (Siftei Renanot 43).
None of the authors so far mentioned posited a specific text for the blessing of children. My research indicates that Rabbi Jacob Emden (1748) was the first rabbinic writer to mention Genesis 48:20 and the Priestly Benediction in connection with the Friday night liturgy (Siddur Rav Yaakov Emden, Hanhagat Leil Shabbat 7). Emden encouraged fathers and rabbis to offer the blessing, whether in the sanctuary upon the conclusion of the synagogue service or immediately upon arrival at home before the evening meal. [Some synagogues continue the practice of having the rabbi bless all minor children present at services. I recall fondly the blessings I received in my youth from Rabbi Dale Polakoff of Great Neck Synagogue.] Emden encouraged fathers to bless both their minor and grown children. He also encouraged fathers to personalize the blessing by saying something endearing beyond the formulaic language. Emden favored the laying of both hands on the recipient, disagreeing with the Vilna Gaon who insisted that non-Kohanic fathers use only one hand lest they too closely approximate the Birkat Kohanim (Siddur Ha-Gra 2:87).
Rabbi Abraham Danzig (1748-1820) and Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margalioth (1762-1828) both mentioned the custom of blessing children at the onset of the Day of Atonement. Danzig advised that the blessing be conferred just before entering the synagogue, at which point the holiday has already commenced and the heavenly gates of mercy have already opened. In addition to the standard formula recited on Friday nights, Danzig appended to the Yom Kippur version supplications for fear of sin, love of Torah, and Jewish continuity (Hayyei Adam 2:144:19). Margalioth’s version of the blessing was less cheerful than Danzig’s. He encouraged parents to cry in front of their children and exhort them to do right in the eyes of God, hoping that parental histrionics combined with the dread of the Day of Judgment would make an impression upon them. Not wanting people to enter into the holiday in too somber a mood, Margalioth advised that the blessing be conferred at home, before the trip to synagogue (Mateh Ephraim 619:2).
Margalioth noted that shortly before their deaths, the great Biblical heroes — the Patriarchs and Moses — blessed their offspring and/or followers. They waited until their last earthly moments, suggests Margalioth, because it is at the very end of life that one experiences elevated holiness and pure thoughts, and is totally free from mundane concerns. It is for this reason, he argues, that parents bless children at the onset of Sabbaths and on Yom Kippur. On those days we are bidden to free our minds of mundane concerns and focus on spiritual advancement, familial love, and rejuvenating rest.
The great challenge of modern times is to be able periodically to divorce ourselves from our hectic lives. When Shabbat begins, what are the thoughts running through our minds? Are they the same as during the work week? They should not be. Blessing the children on Sabbath eve has value only if the focus at that point is on God and family.