From Shabbat Bi-shabato Vayechi Y. Roichman
Friday night after Kiddush, as in many other communities in our nation, our family has a custom of blessing the children. The boys are blessed with the verse, "Let G-d make you like Efraim and Menasheh." [Bereishit 48:20]. "Let G-d bless you and watch over you. Let G-d light up His face to you and favor you. Let G-d lift up His face to you and give you peace." [Bamidbar 6:24-26]. This is a combination of Yaacov's blessing to Yosef and his sons and of the blessing of the Kohanim.
The blessing for girls begins differently, with "Let G-d make you like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah." It then continues as for the boys, with the blessings of the Kohanim.
What is the source for this custom? And why are Efraim and Menasheh a good model for our children?
The source is in this week's Torah portion. When Yaacov blesses his beloved grandsons, Menasheh and Efraim, he crisscrosses his hands on their heads and says, "Yisrael will bless using you, and say, let G-d make you like Efraim and Menasheh." Rashi notes, "One who comes to bless his children will use their blessing, and he will say, Let G-d make you like Efraim and Menasheh."
Rashi does not explicitly state that there is an obligation to bless the children. In fact, Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi notes, "'One who comes to bless his children' – Do not think that every person in Yisrael has an obligation to bless his children." However, in spite of this, the custom is widespread, mainly among the Sephardi communities and also among some Ashkenazim. In some cases, the blessing is performed specifically on Friday night. Is there a basis for this custom in halachic sources?
According to Rabbi Yaacovson in his book "Nativ Binah," the earliest mention of this custom is in the book "Maavar Yabok" (written by Rabbi Aharon Berchia of Modina, who passed away in 1639). He writes, "One should place his hand on the head of a child who is being blessed, especially on Friday night. Based on the secret of Shabbat the Queen and the extra soul that we have on Shabbat, the blessings will take effect on the one who is doing the blessing and the one who receives it, because Satan and evil do not have any influence on Shabbat... There is a holy need to bless the children on Shabbat."
Rabbi Yaacov Emden also mentions this in his siddur. "It is a custom of Yisrael to bless the children Friday night after the prayers or at the beginning of Shabbat, because this is the time when abundance comes. It is a worthy idea to pass this on especially to the small children who have not yet sinned, but even older children should receive a blessing from their fathers... Both hands are placed on their heads, like Moshe did... And the same is done by Kohanim who recite the blessing with two hands."
Yaavetz notes that two hands should be used, "Not like those who lack understanding and who think that they should specifically bless using only one hand." He explains that the reason Yaacov put only one hand on each grandson was so that he could bless both of them together in order to avoid any jealousy between them. On the other hand, Rabbi Yitzchak Chizkiya Lamportny edited an encyclopedia of Jewish customs by the name, "Pachad Yitzchak." He quotes an opinion that it is better to put only one hand on the child's head when reciting the blessing, based on Kabbalistic reasoning: "I have seen that it is not customary to bless children with two hands in order to avoid linking kindness and law." He also differentiates between the blessings for people who are married or single, or for yeshiva students. "My custom is to bless the married ones with two hands – for him and for his wife. But for single people I use one hand. And for those studying Torah I use two hands, because Torah can provide support when there is no wife." [Some say not to use two hands because only kohanim duchen with two hands].
Efraim and Menasheh
In "Igra D'Kalah," the question is asked, "Why should the people of Yisrael bless their children only with these two names instead of saying, Let G-d make you like Reuven, Shimon... and list all the sons?" He answers that this is related to their good character traits and the good relationships that they all had with each other. "When Yaacov put Efraim before Menasheh, he saw that Efraim did not show excess pride and he saw that Mehasheh did not show any jealousy. And that is why he blessed them: "Yisrael will bless using you, and say, let G-d make you like Efraim and Menasheh" – Efraim without pride, and Menasheh without jealousy.
The Responsa Minchat Yitzchak quotes another explanation from the Ketav Sofer. Efraim and Menasheh had made a deal like Yissachar and Zevulun – Efraim would study Torah while Menasheh would be busy with worldly matters. The point of the blessing is that our children should be like both Efraim and Menasheh together, and that the child will succeed in both Torah and in good deeds. The author writes that "the main occupation should be Torah study, corresponding to the verse, 'And he put Efraim before Menasheh' [Bereishit 48:20].
I found another beautiful explanation in the insights of the GRIZ (Rabbi Yitzchak Zeev Soloveitchik). "All the other tribes were raised and educated by Yaacov in the Land of Canaan, and they were therefor privileged to be Divine tribes. But Menasheh and Efraim did not have this privilege, and in fact they grew up in Egypt, a place of impurity, idol worship, and illicit sex. But in spite of this they had the merit of achieving the status of tribes. And this is the blessing that is passed on to every person in Yisrael – not to be influenced by the surroundings, no matter what they are, just like Efraim and Menasheh in the Land of Egypt."