By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Could you please explain the custom of blessing the children on Friday night? I recently saw it for the first time and thought it was very beautiful; I wish I had done it with my children when they were growing up. Is it something all Orthodox Jews do?
Blessing the children on Shabbat eve is, indeed, a custom which has been observed by traditional Jews since time immemorial. It is a moment filled with love and meaning, especially when you understand the source behind it.
This blessing dates back to the patriarch Jacob, who called together his sons for a final blessing before he died. Before blessing all 12 tribes he called in Joseph and his two sons for a unique blessing. Joseph’s two sons deserved a special blessing for their heroic exhibition of spiritual strength, remaining steadfast in their heritage despite growing up and living their entire lives away from Jacob and the tribes, surrounded by the enticing and overwhelming heathen Egyptian culture. With that they became eternal Jewish heroes, such that Jacob then declared through his blessing that they are to be emulated by Jews of all time, deriving from them the strength to remain strong throughout long, difficult periods of exile steeped in foreign cultures.
“On that day Jacob blessed them, he said: ‘In times to come, Israel [the Jewish people] will use you as a blessing. They will say, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe’” (Genesis 48:20).
Jewish girls are blessed to be like the holy matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. These women had overcome great tests of adversity and faith throughout their lives and remained strong, meriting them to be the eternal mothers of the Jewish nation.
Any parent can learn the inspirational life stories of these great individuals and find unique messages they would like to have in mind when blessing their children, each being different and needing his or her distinct life message and brachah.
We end the blessing by adding the holy brachah/blessing recited by the Kohanim/priests to the entire Jewish people when performing the Temple service: “May G-d bless you and watch over you. May G-d shine His countenance toward you and show you favor. May G-d be favorably disposed toward you and may He grant you peace.” These three blessings are meant to comprise all that is good in this world. I add my own personal words of blessing to each child after reciting the standard text.
This is a custom my wife and I, and our children, look forward to so much. Every Friday all our children away from home, from the East Coast to Israel, call in to get their brachah. It’s never too late to start, no matter what the child’s (or adult’s) age, and it’s sure to be appreciated and add much love to the relationship — something our children can never get too much of!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.