One of the most meaningful and valuable Jewish customs takes place during the Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, it is the blessing over the children. This special blessing is traditionally recited either before or after Kiddush and is typically said only by the father, though in some homes the mother also joins in or recites it instead. Likewise, when the blessing is being recited, the father or mother will often place a hand on top of each child’s head, adding further depth and meaning to the ritual.
The blessing originates from the Priestly Blessing which is found in Numbers 6:22-26:
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons, this is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’”
There are two introductory blessings that precede the recitation of the Priestly Blessing, one is for boys and the other is for girls.
The blessing for boys:
יְשִׂמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶׁה.
May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.
The blessing for girls:
יְשִׂמֵךְ אֱלֹהִים כְּשָׂרָה רִבְקָה רָחֵל וְלֵאָה.
May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
After these preliminary blessings are recited over the children, it is followed by the Priestly Blessing:
יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ.
יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָ.ּ
יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלום.
May God bless you and keep you.
May God shine His face on you and be gracious to you.
May God turn His face toward you and grant you peace.
The introductory blessings each have their own unique meaning and wish for the child. The blessing for the girls asks the Lord to make them righteous women of God, just like the matriarchs of the Bible: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. These women serve as prime examples of how to be strong through difficult times and how to be faithful to God and to the family.
The blessing for boys is seemingly unfitting; why are they supposed to be like Ephraim and Manasseh and not like the patriarchs of the Bible, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? There are two main reasons for this; the first one comes from the part in Genesis when Jacob gave his sons a final blessing before his death. During that time, he also gave a special blessing to two of his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph.
“He blessed them that day and said, ‘In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing: “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”’ So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)
Another explanation states that Ephraim and Manasseh were the first pair of brothers in the Bible that did not fight for power over each other, they were able to maintain a healthy family dynamic throughout their lives. An even more profound reason for choosing Ephraim and Manasseh for the boys’ blessing claims that the brothers held true to their Jewish identity despite having been raised in Egypt. The ability to hold firm to one’s faith in God and identity regardless of pressure from the environment is considered to be one of the most important attributes that one could wish for his child.
Blessing the children doesn’t have to take place only during Kabbalat Shabbat, however, there are many other occasions where this unique blessing is also appropriate. For instance, many parents also recite this blessing for their child if they have a brit milah (the circumcision ceremony for baby boys) or a baby naming ceremony for a girl. It can also be said on the day of the child’s bar or bat mitzvah, their wedding day, or any other important milestone in their life.
May this blessing be beneficial to you as you draw closer to your children and strengthen your relationship together as a family.