Before the Shabbat meal, it is customary for the parents to bless their children. This blessing is known as Birkat Habanim. Actually, there are two separate blessings recited, one for boys and one for girls*.
The blessing given to boys is Jacob’s blessing to Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Jacob declared: “By you shall Israel bless, saying: May God make you as Ephraim and as Menashe” (Genesis 48:20).
Why, you might ask, did Jacob declare that Israel would bless their children through his grandsons rather than through his own children?
Jacob’s children were raised and taught by Jacob and their mothers, all of whom were devoted to the service of God. As part of a large family, they had a supportive infrastructure of people living and practicing a common faith and rituals.
Ephraim and Menashe, on the other hand, were raised in Egypt and were taught their faith by Joseph and their mother, Osnat (a presumed convert to monotheism). They lived, however, in Pharaoh’s palace, hardly an easy place to escape from the amoral practices of the ancient Egyptians.
When Jacob finally came to Egypt, he was delighted to find his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, living by the family ideals. Their “Jewish souls” had not only survived in the exile of Egypt, they had actually flourished. Perhaps anticipating that many future generations of Jews would be raised in environments similar to Egypt rather than the land of Israel, Jacob’s blessing to his descendants of the future was that, wherever their homes may be, they too should be able to create strong Jewish families in which Jewish faith and heritage would flourish.
*The blessing for daughters is slightly different and refers instead to the four matriarchs of the Jewish people: “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” (to be discussed in a future Treat).