Written by: Erin Parfet

Blessing Over the Children

A beautiful tradition that many Jewish families or perhaps even congregations embrace is the blessing of their children on Friday nights as Shabbat is soon arriving or has just started. The words of the blessing are derived from the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24–26), and the format varies slightly depending on whether the child is male or female. In addition to Friday nights, some parents may choose to bless their children using this blessing or a similar variation at a brit milah, a naming ceremony, a birthday, a bar or bat mitzvah, graduation day, or any other special occasion.

It is largely unknown how far back in history this beautiful tradition of blessing children goes. The earliest reference to blessing one’s children seems to be found in Brautspiegel, a treatise on morals penned by Moses Henochs in Basel, Switzerland, in 1602. In one chapter of this treatise, Henochs elaborates on some thoughts on raising children and writes, "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 a bowed body and shall incline their heads and receive the blessing."

The concept is built upon in a 1604 German manuscript, Synagoga Judaica, written by Johannes Buxtrof (often known as the "Master of Rabbis), that focuses on different opinions and ceremonies of the Jewish people that would have been common at the time, in the context that he devoted his life to studying Hebrew and rabbinical literature. One passage in Synagoga Judaica of relevance to this discussion reads, "After the service [on Sabbath eve in the synagogue] 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 their pupils."

Then in 1748, Rabbi Jacon Emden published a discourse on this topic in a book, which partially reads, "It is the custom in Israel to bless the children on Sabbath eve after service or upon entering the house." His long text goes into further explanation about how the blessing of the children invites the spirit of God to descend upon the children, who are not of age to receive God’s spirit based on their own actions or inactions. Thus, God’s blessing for young children was viewed as being secured through parents on behalf of their children, who were not yet of age to seek God’s blessing for themselves.

For boys, the first line of the blessing, based on the masculine in the Hebrew language, is "May you be like Ephraim and Menashe" (Yesimcha Elohim k’Ephraim v’chi-Menashe). Meanwhile, for females, based on the feminine in the Hebrew language, the first line of the blessing reads, "May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah" (Yesimech Elohim k’Sarah Rivka Rachel v’Leah). For both boys and girls, the remainder of the blessing reads, "May God bless you and protect you. May God show you favor and be gracious to you. May God show you kindness and grant you peace" (Yivarechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha Ya’er Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka) Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yasem lecha shalom.

There is no traditional method that is used universally for blessing the children, and thus different families and congregations may take liberties in performing the blessing. Regardless of who blesses the children or where, it is generally typical to place both hands on the head of a child (unless it is a group of children where this may be unfeasible).

In some homes, the father may bless his children, as he is viewed as the equivalent of a priest with dominion over his own home and family, whereas in other homes, both the mother and the father may bless their children, perhaps together and perhaps separately. In some cases, a mother may bless her daughters, and a father may bless his sons. In the family setting, parents may then take the opportunity to praise the child for an accomplishment in the week prior, provide encouragement to the child, or simply remind their child they are loved.

Families may also take liberties with the timing of the blessing in their routines. Some families may choose to bless their children before Kiddush, whereas other families prefer blessing their children after Kiddush. Some families may bless their children before lighting the Shabbat candles, whereas other families may bless their children after lighting the candles. If children are grown, far away, in college, or in split family situations, some families may choose to bless their children over the phone or on such platforms as Zoom or Skype, as it is convenient in the Friday night flow of events as families connect from afar to celebrate the incoming Sabbath.

In other cases, the blessing may be performed in a congregational setting, so a family may or may not choose to do their own blessings at home if the blessing is carried out at their synagogue services. When the blessing occurs congregationally, there may be multiple people, perhaps 4-5 congregational leaders or elders, who partake in the blessing over the children of the congregation. The rabbi usually takes part in this beautiful blessing as well.

Why Ephraim and Menashe? Why not Joseph, David, Solomon, or Moses, for example? The best explanation from Jewish tradition, elaborated on by Rabbi Mordechai Elon and Rabbi Shmuel Hominer, seems to be that Ephraim and Menashe were brothers who lived together peacefully, with a focus on casting aside their own desires for the greater good of the community in which they lived. They even grew up outside of Israel yet remained faithful to their heritage when many would have likely succumbed to the influences of a foreign land and culture. Psalms 133:1, "How good and pleasant is it for brothers to sit peacefully together," seems to best explain this concept.

This sentiment seems to encapsulate the themes that Jewish tradition views as desirable for sons growing up in faith and wisdom of the Lord: living together peacefully, not bickering with one’s brother, and casting aside ego to work together for the betterment of the community and all of Israel. Thus, parents or congregational leaders would want to bless their sons with the fortitude to remain strong despite the surroundings of an immoral culture, to maintain a righteous life no matter the environment around you, to maintain the moral foundations of your faith even if you dwell in a non-Jewish or pagan land, to pass on a legacy of peace between brothers, and to be shining stars keeping their moral compasses pointed due north though the Heavens may fall.

For the daughters being raised in the Jewish faith, why bless them to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah? It seems that Jewish tradition recognizes the distinct, important roles that each of these women had in contributing to Israel, noting such characteristics as leadership, the ability to inspire and encourage others, their sense of charity, their caring natures and selflessness, their righteousness as matriarchs despite the conditions in which they grew up and their pasts, their ability to remain strong, steadfast, and faithful in the Lord despite difficult situations, and yet also being faithful to one’s family. In the case of both boys and girls, rabbis of the past have felt that these are the characteristics they want Jewish children to aspire to and keep passing down through the generations, emulating them in all Jewish people until such time as the Messiah comes.

Especially at this time in history in many parts of the world, we live in a more self-centered, me-focused world where children are often seen as inconveniences and burdens to our dreams, college educations, career paths, vacations, aspirations, personal lives, and economic prosperity rather than the blessings that they are. Pregnancy is sometimes viewed as a sickness that needs to be cured, when it is not a sickness but a natural process for women. Jewish tradition acknowledges this; Menachem Mendel Schneerson, an Orthodox rabbi also known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, acknowledges that every child is born with their parnassa (livelihood) already provided for by the Almighty.

None of this is to minimize the incredible strain that pregnancy places on a woman’s body or the changes and challenges that are inevitable in one’s life as part of embracing parenthood, yet each and every child is formed in the image of God and is a heritage from the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is a reward and a blessing from God. God is the one who blesses us with children and has a plan to care for that child throughout all the days of that child’s life, just as He has plans for each one of us. May we bless our children as the Lord blesses each of us.

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