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Vayechi(Genesis 47:28-50:26)

Blessing of Ephraim & Menashe

Jacob, realizing he is about to die, gathers his 12 sons to receive a blessing.

But first, Jacob calls upon two of his grandchildren – Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe – to receive blessings. Why would Jacob place priority on blessing grandchildren over children?

As every grandparent knows) the joy of having grandchildren in some respects excedes the joy of having children is. Why is this so?

Most creatures in the world have parent-child relationships – whether a mother lion protecting her cubs or a mother bird feeding her young. But only the human being has a concept of grandchildren, of perpetuation beyond a single generation. Being a grandparent connects us to our unique spiritual soul which is rooted in infinity.

Sibling Peace

There is further significance to Jacob's blessings.

One of the most beautiful customs in Jewish life is for parents to bless their children at the start of the Friday night Shabbat meal. Girls receive the blessing: "May God make you like the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah." Boys, meanwhile, are blessed "to be like Ephraim and Menashe."

What happened to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Why are Ephraim and Menashe instead the subjects of this important tradition?

Ephraim and Menashe were the first set of Jewish brothers who did not fight. Abraham's two sons – Isaac and Ishmael – could not get along, and their disagreement forms the basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict until today. The next generation – Isaac's twin sons, Jacob and Esav – were so contentious that Esav repeatedly sought to kill Jacob and instructed his descendants to do the same. The next generation was contentious as well: Jacob's sons sold Joseph into slavery.

Ephraim and Menashe represent a break from this pattern. This explains why Jacob purposely switched his hands, blessing the younger Ephraim before the older Menashe. Jacob wished to emphasize the point that with these siblings, there is no rivalry. (see Genesis 48:13-14)

(In the world of nature, things can degenerate even further. A mother shark casts multiple fertilized eggs into her womb. Once the fetus-sharks grow teeth they tear one another apart, then eat their siblings – until the strongest shark remains alone in the womb.)

Indeed, there is no greater blessing than peace among siblings. The words of King David ring true: "How good and pleasant is it for brothers to sit peacefully together" – Hiney ma tov u'ma'nayim, shevet achim gam yachad (Psalms 133:1).

It is with this thought that parents bless their children today.

Diaspora Difficulties

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) offers another explanation of why Jewish boys throughout the ages have received the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe:

The first generations of Jews – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – raised their children primarily in the Land of Israel. The Holy Land is the most hospitable Jewish environment, where the Talmud reports that "even the air makes you wise." In one sense, being Jewish in Israel is easy.

But due to famine, Jacob and his family moved to Egypt. The next generation would grow up surrounded by pagan immorality. The challenge was if Judaism would survive amidst all the distractions of diaspora life.

Throughout the ages, Jewish parents have prayed that their children withstand the temptations of exile, and keep a strong, proud Jewish identity.

It is not an easy task. Faced with the reality of Xmas season, for example, the easy option is to relegate Jewish identity to the back burner. That's why parents must constantly fight the tide by emphasizing Jewish values. The most effective tools are high-impact experiences like Jewish day schools and trips to Israel.

In the end, how does a parent gauge success?

Far more than children, it is grandchildren who reveal the foundation and future direction of a family line. Hence the popular saying: "The issue is not whether you have Jewish children, it's whether you have Jewish grandchildren."

What was the outcome with Ephraim and Menashe? Despite great odds, they grew up in Egypt and maintained adherence to Torah ideals and practice. Which is why we bless our sons to be like them, expressing our hope for proud Jewish children – and grandchildren. 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

January 15, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 23

(22) Anonymous, January 13, 2017 1:42 PM

Excellent article and very well written! Thanks for posting!

(21) Phyllis Hadassah Moishe- Shackelford, January 9, 2017 6:12 PM

Wow! Yes. Emphasizing Jewish values instead of conforming to your environment changes lives.

Thank you, Rabbi Simmons, for this excellent lesson. After reading this, even at my age, (single and childless) past normal child bearing years, I felt a desire to be a mother, raise my child with Jewish values, and pray that there will be grandchildren who are observant, even if I don't live to see it . {Psalm 92, verse 14:They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing} When I was younger and married, having children was not a priority. Reading your lesson today, caused me to be sorry that Jewish values being instilled into the next generation was missing from my life. As your lesson reminded me, G-d's will is for married couples to be fruitful, and multiply, to be holy, and to raise up holy offspring, teaching them Jewish values. I pray it daily in the Shema. Now I desire to experience teaching my own offspring about Ha Shem.

(20) Anonymous, December 13, 2013 5:41 PM

I thought I was a not good enough mother till I read Rabbi Shraga

I raised my kids in America wanting to give them values with all the "good life" posible I am not orthodox but very strong feeling toward orthodox I have My daughter have 4 amazing kids,she is Bal teshuva I always feel that because I was so much after giving the Ivy legue school
every thing the best of the best I compremised on quality time now I realize that I afterall insteled values
she is shomer mitzvot and my grandchildren are beyond the beyond ,Unfortunatly my son died a suden death
He dated a non jewish girl who was an angel about 2 years abo he left her after 10 years because he couldnt
do it to his grandfader so he didnt go threw the holucost in vein and before he died he was in a realationship with a good jewish girl so both kids knew how hard I worked
Physicaly and mentaly so they should not only maintain their adherence, but there should be no descent whatsoever and I am good enough

(19) es58, December 8, 2013 7:44 PM

even more

You wrote:

What was the outcome with Ephraim and Menashe? Despite great odds, they grew up in Egypt and maintained adherence to Torah ideals and practice. Which is why we bless our children to be like them.

I don't recall who I heard this from in the last few years,
but, even beyond what you write here, not only did they maintain adherence, they reached the level of shevatim - tribes, in other words, Joseph raised them, in an alien egyptian culture so well according to the teachings of his father Yakov, that there was no yeridas ha-doros, no descending of the generation (an incredible tribute to Yoseph as well)! They achieved the level of son's of Yakov, like Reuvain, Shimon etc.

That's what we would want to bless our children, that they should not only maintain their adherence, but there should be no descent whatsoever.

(18) Joe, December 29, 2012 1:32 AM

Todah rabbah

Hello, I am a wanna-be Jew. I am 16 and my parents are highly against Judaism. Anyway, I have been looking up the Torah Portion cuz of my desire to become a Rabbi. I love how you guys get deeper in the Torah Portion! Shabbat Shalom!

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