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23.12.2015 10:53    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  genesis  parashat  vayechi  

Why Ephraim and Manasseh?

Blessing one's children on the Sabbath eve with the blessing from this week's reading, in which Jacob blessed his grandsons born to Joseph, has become a widespread and accepted practice:  "G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh" (Gen. 48:20; for sons), or "G-d make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah" (ibid; for daughters),[1] after which they are blessed with the priestly blessing:  "The Lord bless you and protect you,…" (Num. 6:24).  Rashi comments (loc.sit.):  "When blessing one's sons, they should be blessed with their blessing, the father saying to his son, 'May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.'"  Daniel Sperber[2] notes that this is a relatively late custom, appearing in the prayer book of R. Jacob Emden (18th century), but apparently it spread rapidly throughout most Jewish communities.

Below we shall deal with why this particular formulation, "like Ephraim and Manasseh," is used.  True, Scripture says, "By you shall Israel evoke blessings, saying" (Gen. 48:20), but are there not other figures in the Bible who could serve as an example for our children?  Why not bless them to be "like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" (as daughters are blessed to be like the Matriarchs), or like the names of the tribes?  Did Ephraim and Manasseh do such notable things that they should be mentioned every Sabbath eve?  I shall present five different answers to this question, each one opening new and interesting vistas in its own right.

1. I shall start with an explanation I heard from my mother of blessed memory, who told the following story of her father, a devout Jewish doctor from the city of Mulhouse in Alsace, France.  Despite his living in great isolation, in a tiny Jewish community situated in non-Jewish surroundings, he managed to educate his twelve children to follow the Torah.  Both Ephraim and Manasseh grew up and lived in a hostile, non-Jewish environment, without Jewish education.  Nevertheless they grew up to be good Jews, believing in G-d and following the ways of their forefathers.  So, too, we bless our children that even in difficult surroundings, amidst the gentiles (bear in mind that this practice was instituted in Jewish communities outside of Israel), our children succeed in growing up according to Jewish tradition, keeping the Torah.  Therefore, we deliberately mention Ephraim and Manasseh.[3]


2. Another explanation:  To show our hope for continuity, we bless our children that they have the good fortune of seeing continuation in the next generation, just as our patriarch Jacob was blessed with seeing his grandchildren continuing in his way and indeed blessed his grandsons.  This is the first time in the Torah, and perhaps in the history of mankind, that a grandfather blesses his grandchildren, and through this act he emphasized continuity of the family and the society.  Moreover, we know that the advantage of human beings over animals lies in the personal and reciprocal relationship between a person and his or her grandchildren, something which does not exist in the animal world.


3. The following explanation was given following remarks by Sefat Emet (Parashat Va-Yehi, 1901):

The Ba`al Teshuvah (returning to Jewish roots) must continue in a new path in order to make amends for that which had been spoiled.  In this manner Jacob laid a new road and elevated the sons of Joseph, so they would adhere to their forefathers… and the twelve tribes adhered to the level of the patriarchs.

Just as Jacob elevated the status of Ephraim and Manasseh to that of the tribes, so, too, we bless them in the hope that we have the good fortune of seeing our children elevated to the status of the tribes, which was on the level of the patriarchs.

4. A different explanation is given by Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Berlin (Netziv).  In his commentary on the Torah, Ha`amek Davar, he writes:  "Ephraim and Manasseh were each great in different ways; Ephraim was great in Torah and adhering to the Lord, while Manasseh was great in the ways of the world and caring for the community."  In his notes, Harhev Davar, he remarks:


It is fitting to bless a person only with such blessing as the Lord has bestowed upon him thus far, a rich person with wealth and a wise person with wisdom…  That being the case, it is not fitting to bless a person who does not occupy himself with Torah that he be like Ephraim, or a person who does not occupy himself with worldly affairs that he be like Manasseh.  But when a child is circumcised and it is as yet unknown which path the child will follow, then a Jew blesses him, "G-d make you like Ephraim" – if he should grow up to occupy himself with Torah, may he succeed like Ephraim, "and Manasseh" – if he grow up to occupy himself with worldly affairs, may he be like Manasseh.


Apparently it was customary for the Netziv to give this blessing during the circumcision ceremony.  Ephraim and Manasseh symbolize the two principal ways of worshipping the Lord:  studying Torah or actively working and doing.  I do not quite understand why Ephraim and Manasseh are said to symbolize these two ways, and not a pair such as Issachar and Zebulun.  One could also ask whether, once the child has grown and chosen a certain way for himself, one ought to continue blessing him to be like Ephraim and Manasseh.


5. The last explanation that comes to mind bears on the essence of the entire book of Genesis.  Throughout this book we are constantly faced with strife between brothers:  Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.  As long as there is fighting among brothers, one cannot establish a nation.  The nation of Israel begins to emerge only after fraternal strife has ceased.  Only when there is true peace between Joseph and his brothers does the book of Genesis come to an end and the book of Exodus, in which the nation of Israel assumes shape, begins.  Prior to that there is no nation, for only when there is brotherhood within the family can one forge a nation.  Ephraim and Manasseh are the first pair of brothers in Scripture who do not contend with each other; rather, they have peace and tranquility in their dealings.  Even when Jacob crossed his hands, giving preference to Ephraim over Manasseh, there was no jealously between them and the brothers remained united.  Therefore the patriarchal blessing specifically mentions Ephraim and Manasseh.  Mothers and fathers, in blessing their children, expect, hope and pray that there always be brotherly love between their children, and therefore they bless them with this blessing.  One of the worst things that can happen to parents is to see strife and jealousy between their sons and daughters.  One child can easily feel that another has received more, and from there the way to jealously is short.  By mentioning Ephraim and Manasseh, we try to prevent this.


In conclusion, parents bless their children according to the above five explanations:  that the youngsters be able to cope in difficult surroundings, that they continue the family line, that they succeed in elevating themselves in spirituality in a way appropriate to them, and lastly, that they preserve peace and friendship amongst themselves.


[1] Many prayer books today contain a blessing for daughters.  For example, Siddur Avodat Yisrael by Isaac ben Aryeh Joseph Dov, Siddur Otzar ha-Tefillot, Siddur Ish Matzliah of Rabbi Matzliah Mazoz, and Siddur Avodat ha-Shem ha-Shalem.

[2] Weekly Torah Study on Parashat Va-Yehi, 2008 (no. 735).

[3] Even living in Israel there is good reason to pray we may succeed in educating our children and safeguard them against the temptations offered by their contemporary surroundings.

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