As Fathers Day approaches on the secular calendar, I find myself thinking about the traditional Jewish blessing fathers bestow on their sons. This tradition has its roots in a scene towards the end of the book of Genesis, in which Jacob says from his deathbed:
By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20)
Every Shabbat evening, Jews around the world bless their sons with the words “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” fulfilling Jacob’s deathbed pronouncement from the end of the book of Genesis. I did not grow up with this particular tradition in my family, so when I learned about it, a question immediately sprang to mind: what’s so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that we pray to make our children like them?
The Torah itself gives us shockingly little information about these two brothers, the sons of Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, and his Egyptian wife Asenath. We know that they lived their entire lives in Egypt, that Manasseh is the older of the two, and that the biblical books of Genesis and Chronicles disagree a bit about whether one of Manasseh’s descendants was his son or grandson. Otherwise, all we have are conjectures based on this one scene at their grandfather’s deathbed.
Still, if you’re only going to get one scene, at least it’s a memorable one. As soon as Joseph hears that Jacob is on his way towards shuffling off this mortal coil, he grabs the grandkids and runs to daddy’s side. Jacob wastes no time before relating a vision of God and adopting the grandkids, effectively bumping them up one generation for the purposes of inheritance. One has to wonder what Jacob was thinking – has he forgotten that his own brother nearly killed him over monkeying around with inheritance customs? Or how his own sons nearly killed Joseph over Jacob’s favoritism? Jacob doesn’t seem to care, but some commentators see him as possibly addled at this point because of the next line:
Noticing Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8)
These, of course, are the two darlings he feels so close to that he just adopted them, despite not being able to recognize them at arm’s length. (More recent commentators note that changes in language between these two sections suggest that it was the editor who was loopy, and not Jacob.) Not satisfied with the inheritance-shuffling he’s already done, Jacob one-ups himself by crossing his arms while blessing the boys, symbolizing the reversal of the usual pattern of bestowing the greater blessing on the older son. Joseph protests, but Jacob – a younger brother himself who’s gotten screwed by ageism more than once in the past – is having none of it. He’ll bless in his own way and that’s that. “Sure, Manasseh will be great too, but Ephraim – that’s where the real naches will be shepped.”
Okay, so the boys get their one big scene in the Bible and they don’t even get their own lines. But that’s okay, because we learn a lot about them through the (hopefully not-too-addled) perspective of their grandfather.
Commentators have had a field day with Jacob’s “senior moment,” asking the obvious question of why he wouldn’t recognize his grandkids. One theory is that Manasseh and Ephraim, as children of intermarriage who grew up entirely immersed in Egyptian culture, looked Egyptian, and to Jacob, "those people" probably all looked alike. And yet, grandpa doesn’t rail against them to strip off their jewelry and wipe off all that makeup – he blesses them anyway. Rabbi Harold Kushner sees in this scenario a blessing that is surely relevant for ourselves and our children today – may we be like Ephraim and Manasseh, able to proudly maintain our Jewish identities while living fully within our non-Jewish society.
Kushner also sees a blessing in the boys’ relationship with each other. He suggests they become a source of blessing “perhaps because they were the first brothers in the Bible to get along peaceably, after the conflicts that marred the lives of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers."
In other words, the blessing that Jewish fathers bestow on their sons is the blessing of not having to be like their fathers, either in culture or behavior. Our tradition teaches us to love our children regardless of their lifestyles, and to wish for them a life more filled with shalom bayit, peaceful relationships, than the live we lead ourselves.
Happy Fathers Day.
David Levy is the marketing director of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. From 2010 to 2013, he was editor of JewishBoston.com.