Thursday, 20 Dec 2018

Written by Yaera Ratel

universal-declaration-human-rights_UN photo_1_un_orgIs it true that a child is blessed when it receives a blessing from its own parents? The answer seems or could seem obvious! Of course a child is blessed just as the children of Jacob in Vayechi are blessed by his words.  But is it also true that if a child receives a blessing he/she owes a debt to the giver of the blessing?

The purpose of the blessings of Jacob is to detail different levels of achievement, depictions of  personality, or guidance and hope for the future. The contemporary act of blessing children by parents may be dated from Noach with the complex and ambivalent blessings he transmits to his sons Shem and Japhet, excluding Cham.[1] We are even more familiar with Isaac’s blessing of his sons Jacob and Esau when he reverses the order of birth through the unknown (to him) intervention of his wife Rebecca. Isaac is old, and lies on his death’s bed when he blesses his two sons. When the time comes, Jacob is also on his death bed when he blesses his grand children Ephraim and Manasseh, and then his twelve sons.[2]

It is surprising that we have no precise historical continuity of the rooting of a regular ritual by parents to bless children through the years of their lives. Nowadays the recurrent wording for boys and girls are well known and frequently used in family circles and in synagogues.[3] It is noteworthy that the blessing of children appears as a very common contemporary practice while it is not indeed a mitzvah – a commandment – but a custom, a minhag. The chosen pattern for boys follows the wording used by Jacob for Ephraim and Manasseh in Parashat Vayechi.[4] The pattern for girls includes Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, but here there are no proof texts and no certainty about the source for this blessing.[5]

Considering this ancient glimpse of the blessing of children also gives us the perspective of a deep educational purpose in the words Jacob spoke to his sons. Each one receives a personally crafted ‘blessing’ that emphasises their main qualities, positive or negative. Jacob also introduces a prophetic emphasis on the future of the twelve tribes that will descend from his sons. A preoccupation concerning the future for a parent at the end of life is a very sensitive worry and Jacob expands it to the next generations. The responsibility resting on each son receiving such a challenge is daunting.

Some days ago I had the opportunity to read in a well-known British newspaper thoughts about the renewal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for today. 2018 celebrates the 70th anniversary of this historic document adopted in Paris on 10th December 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. It was an opportunity for the newspapers to suggest to a few authors to write some renewed aims for universal rights. I thought about the historical redactors of the Universal Declaration, did they receive blessings from their parents, did they struggle to accomplish the heritage contained in their supposed blessings?

The question is valid for each child who receive a blessing. Are children committed to accomplish expectations of their parents? What was the reaction of the sons of Jacob? The remarkable point of the heritage of Jacob is the double aim of the blessings offering a personal summary and a collective dimension for the future of their tribe. The challenge is how to transform the individual inheritance into a common benefit for the group, and perhaps for the broader benefit of society. Individual and collaborative interests are linked. The sons of Jacob, mature adults when they received their blessings, have the choice to approve or reject them. Whatever their levels of acceptance, the words of Jacob gave them energy to make the right choices.

The redactors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not produce a specific blessing but they provided an effective resource to consider the opportunity to live according to a sense of justice for each person, for each country. The redactors, eight men, one woman, were from different countries, they worked together and achieved their goals.[6] Our responsibility is to preserve their heritage and to improve it. According to my point of view the same dream is embedded in the blessings of Jacob. Jacob could have said to each mature ‘child’: use the blessing for your own benefit and comfort but do not forget the collective challenge, it is up to you to decipher the two levels of hope; live well in a decent environment ingrained in justice, you have the capacity to evaluate your positive and negative qualities, I have given you my point of view, adapt them for the best.

Jacob’s blessings offer one model of education, it is not perfect or complete, but it is very vivid. Children do not owe a debt towards their parents, but have the responsibility to adapt and transform the treasure and gift they receive through all their time of life. We are all concerned by the challenge of adaptation and transformation. We all wish to have the capacity to be like Joseph or Rebecca to interpret our dreams and events in our personal and collective lives, and also be able to transfer blessings to future generations.


Yaera Ratel LBC rabbinic student



[1] Genesis 9: 22-27.

[2] Genesis 48-49.

[3] About the historical known process of this minhag, see the article from: Ruth Langer, The Minhag of Parents’s Blessing Their Children, in Jacob, Walter, ed., The Modern Child and Jewish Law, Pittsburgh: Rodef Shalom Press, 2017. 187-202.

[4] Genesis 48: 20: ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’.


[5] The wording is:May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca and Leah’. It could be inspired by Ruth 4: 11.

Cf.’Blessing of Children’’. Page 752 in vol. 3 of Encyclopedia Judaica, (2nd ed.) Detroit et al: Thomson Gale, 2007.

[6] They were from America, Australy, Canada, Chile, China, France, Liban, United Kingdom, ex URSS.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.