On Shabbat and holidays, Jewish parents bless their children. We bless our sons with the words, “God make you like Ephraim and Menashe,” and we bless our daughters, “God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” And parents often ask: I understand why we ask that our daughters should be like the matriarchs, but why do we ask God to make our sons like Ephraim and Menashe? Why not Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
We learn in this week’s parsha that this form of blessing children was originated by Jacob. At the end of his life, when he fell ill, Jacob’s son Joseph brought his children, Ephraim and Menashe, to visit their grandfather and receive his blessing. After Jacob has blessed his grandsons, he said, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying ‘God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.’”
In other words, children were originally blessed in the name of Ephraim and Menashe. It was only later that the blessing in the name of the matriarchs was added to the practice for girls since they are the Torah’s principal female role models.
Still, the question remains — who were Ephraim and Menashe that their names should be used to invoke blessings? Ephraim and Menashe were Joseph’s sons, born to him in Egypt before the famine and before Joseph was reunited with his family. And when Joseph brought them to his father, Jacob blessed them with his right — i.e., more important — hand on Ephraim’s head and his left hand on Menashe’s even though Menashe was the older brother. When Joseph objected, pointing out that the primary blessing should go to the older boy, Jacob responded, “I know, my son, I know. He too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he.”
The hasidic Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov (Poland, 19th century) suggested this explanation:
Even though Jacob gave precedence to Ephraim, the younger son, over Menashe, the first-born, Ephraim didn’t boast to Menashe and Menashe didn’t become jealous of Ephraim. When Jacob saw this, he said — would that all the children of Israel would be like this, without arrogance and jealousy between them, and he decreed that Israel should invoke blessings in their names.
This is nice, but there is an explanation that speaks much more directly to us today. The author of Yalkut Yehuda wrote:
Why do we bless children using the names of Ephraim and Menashe? Because Ephraim and Menashe grew up and were educated in Egypt outside of Jewish surroundings and even so they remained Jewish and didn’t assimilate among the Egyptians. And because Jacob knew that in the future Israel would be dispersed among the nations, he gave this blessing to the generations to come that would grow up in the Diaspora.
“God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” May all of our children, wherever they may find themselves, always remain Jewish, loyal to their people and the God of Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.