I can’t remember the first time when I heard the blessing which is given to children, but I know that throughout my youth I was confused as to the choices made in this blessing. Traditionally on Shabbat we bless our children, and to the boys we say: “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh”, while to the girls we say: “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah”. I understood why we might want our daughters to be like the Matriarchs, but I was unsure why they were not paralleled with a wish for our sons to be like the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).
Of all the male characters throughout the Torah, why did we go for the relatively minor characters of Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph’s two sons?
The answer comes in this week’s Torah portion, as Jacob reaches the end of his life. As we read: ‘And it came to pass after these things, that one told Joseph, Behold, your father is sick; and he took with him his two sons’ (Genesis 48:1). Hearing that his father was ill, Joseph rushed to be by his side, and Jacob began the process of blessing his descendants by blessing the sons of Joseph. Unfortunately, it appears that Jacob had failed to learn the lesson of favoring the younger as he switches the order to bless Ephraim before Manasseh. But as we read: ‘And he blessed them that day, saying, In you shall Israel bless, saying, God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh’ (Genesis 48:20).
So the simple answer is that we bless our sons in this way because Jacob instructed us to. But if we go back a few chapters, we discover why the boys got their names, and perhaps this might help to offer a deeper reason for why we use them for the blessing. As we read: ‘And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh; For God, said he, has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. And the name of the second called he Ephraim; For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction’ (Genesis 41:51-2).
In the name of Manasseh there is a statement about Joseph forgetting the toil in his life and all of his father’s house. In contrast Ephraim’s name is about the success which Joseph had in the land of Egypt, where he was able to be fruitful. In choosing to bless our sons that they should be like Ephraim and Manasseh there is a sense that life is never only positive; life is about taking the good with the bad – and hopefully finding a way to make the most of it.
It is also worth noting that although the name Manasseh is about forgetting, by virtue of the name it also serves as a way of remembering what has been forgotten. This therefore ensures that in the blessing there is also a sense of the work and family which are needed to truly fulfill and achieve the blessing.
There are certainly more famous Biblical males, but the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh is one which we can all relate to.
And if you want to listen to this Two Minutes of Torah: