Blessing Our Daughters

Why did Jacob not bless his daughters before he died?

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Vayehi speaks of blessings, of a grandfather blessing his grandsons, a father blessing his sons. Imagine the scene at the end of the Torah portion: Jacob, whose name has been changed to Israel, calls his twelve sons to his deathbed and blesses each one of them. But his real concern, according to our rabbis, is that his sons will abandon his God after he has died. In the Midrash, his sons respond to this unstated fear with words that have become familiar to us: "Shema Yisrael (Listen, [Dad--whose name is] Israel!): Hashem is our God, only Hashem" Hearing this, the dying patriarch sighs quietly: "Baruch shem k'vod malchuto I'olam va'ed {Blessed is the glorious Name whose kingdom is forever and ever)!" (Midrash B'reishii Rabbah 98-4).
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Each time we say the Shema, we are rehearsing this moment. We are the children acknowledging the God of our own father, and we are pledging our own loyalty to the tradition of ancestors.

This farewell scene cannot fail to move us. But it is also confusing. Jacob also has daughters, and the one named Dinah is no longer in the story. Is she not worthy of blessing?

An Omission

The question of blessing our daughters emerges by way of omission. Jacob and the rest of his family have been reunited with Joseph after many years (Genesis 46). The beloved child Joseph, whom Jacob thought was dead, is not only still alive, but he is a father, with children of his own!

Now, facing death, Jacob says: "I never thought I'd see your face again, and look, God has enabled me to see the face of your children!" (48:8-12). Joseph brings his sons close to his father, with Manasseh, the elder, first. Jacob crosses his arms, putting his right hand on Ephraim's head, and his left on Manasseh's. Joseph intervenes, "Not that way, Father! This is my firstborn; put your right hand on his head." But Jacob wants to put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. Then Jacob blesses them both together with these words: "By you shall the people of Israel give their blessing, saying, "May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh" (48:18-20).

Why does Jacob bless his younger grandson first? It is hard to imagine this blessing without recalling the earlier moment when Jacob himself stole the blessing that his father Isaac meant for his older brother Esau In blessing his grandsons, is Jacob repairing his own history, doing intentionally what Isaac did by accident? Is Jacob asserting through his act of blessing that birth order no longer determines one's destiny--and that blessing is an act of will as opposed to an accident of chance?
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The story raises other questions. Jacob's blessing of his grandsons has become over the centuries the blessing bestowed regularly upon boys; but what is it about Ephraim and Manasseh that merits our blessing our sons in their name? And what about our daughters?

We do not know much about these two young men. We meet them first when they are born (Genesis 41:51-53), and we encounter them again at this moment of blessing. They are children of an Egyptian mother and a father who is one of the most powerful men in Egypt. They are children born in the Diaspora, not only Egyptian but also Israelite-children living in two worlds.

So why do we bless our sons in their name? Could it be because, like so many Jews through our history, they grew up in the Diaspora and still remained Jews? Could it be because we imagine that they followed in their father's footsteps-being part of Egyptian culture and politics-and yet still connected to their grandfather, part of-Israel's community?

Or perhaps we invoke Ephraim and Manasseh because these are the first two siblings in the Bible who do not fight. With Ephraim and Manasseh, the family pathology that unfolds in the book of Genesis, in which siblings struggle with each other, finally comes to an end. They teach us that we do not have to fight over blessings: there are enough of them to go around.

In the Middle Ages, the customary blessing of children took place before Kol Nidrei-the time when we are most aware of our mortality-a time reminiscent of jacob's deathbed blessings. In recent centuries, the tradition expanded to include blessing the children every Shabbat evening and on the evening of holidays. Whereas we continue to bless sons by reference to Ephraim and Manasseh ("May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh"), the tradition for our daughters is different; we bless them with these words: "May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah."

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Rabbi Laura Geller

Rabbi Laura Geller is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California. She is the first woman to be selected to lead a major metropolitan synagogue. Prior to being chosen for this position in 1994, she served as the Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress, Pacific Southwest Region.