One of the most moving and widely observed Jewish customs is the custom of parents blessing their children on Friday night before Shabbat dinner. This custom is also widely observed right before Yom Kippur when parents bless their children with this beautiful ancient blessing. Why? Why has this custom caught on in such a powerful way, even without being mandated as a mitzvah or an obligation? The answer to this question goes back at least 3,300 years.
As Jacob is on his deathbed, he asks his son Joseph to come over, so that Jacob can bless his grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe. These grandchildren grew up far from the home of Jacob. They were part of Egyptian royalty. Under the competitive culture they lived with in Egypt, one can imagine the pressure they were under to fully assimilate and act in a completely Egyptian fashion. But they didn’t. They chose to remain proudly committed to their familiar Abrahamic traditions. And so, when seeing them, Jacob says ”it is through you, that the Jewish people shall bless [their children]:” may God make you like Ephraim and Menashe”. This especially
Jacob saw the power of these children. Their ability to maintain their identity in the face of the most powerful cloture in the world, their ability to resist the temptation to become just like everyone else, and he said: this is the blessing my people are going to need. And so, parents hope their sons that they be like Ephraim and Menashe, and their daughters, that they be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Parents then go on to invoke the priestly blessing: “”May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.”(Numbers, chapter 6).
It is no coincidence that the oldest Hebrew scripture to be found by archeologists, dating back 2,800 years(!), contains these very words, inscribed on a silver amulet.
While parents are so busy doing so much for their children during the week, from giving constructive feedback, to helping with homework, often the large picture can be forgotten. Friday night is the time parents remind themselves—and their children—what this is all about. Yes, there are lots of reminders, responsibilities, corrections, and instructions, but what it all boils down to is the desire to endow a blessing and goodness on their children.
Interestingly, a custom less prevalent that used to go hand in hand with the blessing, originating in Spain and other Sephardic communities, was for children to come to their mother, and kiss her hand as a show of respect for everything she has done. So strong was this custom that Rabbi Yosef Haim, their Chief Rabbi of Baghdad in the late 1800s, used to go on Friday night, directly from synagogue to his mother’s home, bend his head, and kiss her hand as a show of respect. Yes, parents do a great deal for their children and wish them only the best, but it is also important to enshrine a culture of appreciation, a culture in which children appreciate everything that is done for them.
Blessing children Friday night and on Yom Kippur’s eve have become powerful and widespread Jewish customs. The custom concretizes parents’ good wishes for their children, imparts to children the beauty and magnitude of their heritage, and reminds children that no matter how many the reminders to clear their room, do their homework, or study more, their parents’ greatest objective is their children’s success. “”May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.”
Special thanks to my uncle Phil who inspired this article.