No matter where in the world my children find themselves, they know that if they will not be spending Shabbat or Yom Tov with us in person, they need to call us the day before to receive their berakhah (blessing). There is a precious Jewish custom for parents to bless their child(ren) at the beginning of Shabbat or on a Jewish festival right before Kiddush.
What exactly, though, is a berakhah, a blessing? What is its nature? How do we define it? We say blessings every day. We bless God. We bless a bride and groom on their wedding day. We bless America and the State of Israel. What is the essence of a blessing – especially one we give to other people? A berakhah, I believe, can best be described as an essentialist proposal. It is an earnest attempt to reduce into a few words or sentences all those things, which, for us, make life worth living. And when we give someone else a blessing, in effect, we are saying that we would like to share these principles of life with that person in order to create for all of us a life of blessing.
This traditional blessing of children takes as its model the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing, presented in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Naso. Parents, in fact, recite the same blessings formulated with love so long ago: “May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you. May the Lord bestow Divine favor upon you and grant you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). For a boy we preface these words with, “May the Lord make you like Ephraim and Menashe;” and for a girl with, “May the Lord make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” The early modern, rabbinic encyclopedist, Rabbi Yitzchak Lampronti (Italy, 1679-1756), in his monumental Pachad Yitzchak (Letter 2:54b), recommends that parents should follow up the standard priestly blessing with a customized personal blessing. Parents should focus into a few words or sentences all that the child needs to hear to transform the past and next week’s experiences into experiences of blessing.
I once had the opportunity to serve as a scholar on a CJP VIP week-long mission to Israel. During our travels, we met with high level politicians, military leaders, business gurus, crackerjack journalists, and social justice warriors. At the end of our journey, we had a concluding dinner and went around the room asking our participants to share the most transformative moment for them on the trip. I will never forget how one wise soul said that in his life he has met plenty of important and accomplished personages, and although he learned much from our mission, for him it wasn’t new information as much as added depth and complexity. However, on Friday night, he witnessed some of our Shabbat dinner guests bless their children. He had not been aware of this custom. For him, learning of the custom of the weekly blessing of children was the highlight of his trip. Taking the time each week for one generation to bless the next with the Torah’s words of power empowers the individual child, affirms our place in the chain of tradition, and clarifies the ultimate purpose of our week’s activities: to create for all a world of blessing, of prosperity and of peace.
If you do not do so already, please consider adding the Jewish custom of blessing your children into your Shabbat and Jewish holiday routine.
Benjamin J. Samuels, PhD, is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Centre.