This shiur is dedicated to the memory of Professor Yehuda Elitzur, who passed on Tevet 2 Tevet, 5758 in Yerushalayim. Professor Elitzur was an outstanding member of the Bible faculty at Bar-Ilan University for many years and was a member of the board of the “Da’at Mikra” series put out by Mossad haRav Kook – among countless other contributions to the contemporary study of Tanakh. Professor Elitzur left a rich legacy of Torah study and teaching, striking a remarkable balance between religious commitment and critical study. May haKadosh Barukh Hu bring comfort and consolation to his sons, Dr. Yoel Elitzur and Uri Elitzur and their families and may his memory serve as inspiration for who zealously and passionately seek out the many truths to be found in the words of Hashem – in our holy Tanakh.
EPHRAIM AND MENASHEH
“They are the sons God has given me here,” Yoseph said to his father. Then Yisra’el said, “Bring them to me so I may bless them.” Now Yisra’el’s eyes were failing because of old age, and he could hardly see. So Yoseph brought his sons close to him, and his father kissed them and embraced them. Yisra’el said to Yoseph, “I did not expect to see your face; and here God has let me see your children also.” Then Yoseph removed them from his father’s knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. And Yoseph took both of them, Ephraim on his right toward Yisra’el’s left hand and Menasheh on his left toward Yisra’el’s right hand, and brought them close to him. But Yisra’el reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Menasheh’s head, since Menasheh was the firstborn. Then he blessed Yoseph and said, “May the God before whom my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who has delivered me from all harm may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak, and may they increase greatly upon the earth.” (B’resheet [Genesis] 48:9-16)
This famous deathbed scene is etched into our consciousness and is replayed in Jewish homes every Friday night when we bless our children:
“May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.”(ibid. v. 20) Upon close inspection, there are a few anomalies regarding this narrative which are worthy of our attention:
- 1) Why did Ya’akov embrace and kiss his grandchildren before blessing them? – we don’t find him doing this with his own children in the subsequent blessing scene (Ch. 49).
- 2) Why does it matter which hand is used to bless the “more deserving” child?
- 3) If Ya’akov wanted to raise the position of Ephraim over that of Menasheh, why didn’t he insist that they switch positions – why cross his hands? (This question is exacerbated by the end of v. 14 – he crossed his arms since Menasheh was the firstborn – why is Menasheh being the firstborn a reason for crossing his arms?)
- 4) Why did Ya’akov prefer Ephraim to Menasheh, giving him the greater (right-handed) blessing? When challenged by Yoseph, his response was: “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.” (v. 19); however, this response is enigmatic and puzzling. If Ya’akov had indicated that Ephraim was more worthy, more saintly or otherwise more deserving, we could understand. His answer indicates anything but that; it seems that Ya’akov has elected to “go with the winner” and support the son who is destined for greatness – what can we make of his response and his thinking?
- 5) What was the blessing with which Ya’akov blessed his grandchildren while he had his hands on their heads? The text indicates that as he placed his hands on their heads, he blessed Yoseph (regarding their well- being) – but not them!
FLASHBACK: YITZCHAK’S BLESSING
Even a cursory reading of our text quickly brings to mind another blessing scene in B’resheet: Yitzchak blessing Ya’akov in the guise of Esav, followed by the actual blessing received by Esav. (I suggest a quick review of Chapter 27 before continuing).
In both scenes, the bestower of the blessing (Yitzchak, Ya’akov) suffers from poor eyesight, he embraces the recipient(s) of the blessing – and the text of the blessing is not mentioned in the text (see 27:23 and v. 27 carefully). More accurately, each scene includes two blessings (v.23 and 27; 48:15 and 20), neither of which is explicitly presented in the text.
There are several questions to be asked about the narrative in Chapter 27 (in addition to the parallel questions we have already raised from Ch. 48) – the resolution of which will help us understand Ya’akov’s behavior with his grandsons:
- 6) Why was Rivkah so concerned that Ya’akov get that particular blessing, even at the risk of his being cursed instead?
- 7) What is the relationship – if any – between Ya’akov’s purchase of the b’khorah (right of the firstborn) at the end of Chapter 25 and his deceptive taking of the blessing in Chapter 27?
- 8) To paraphrase Esav’s question (27:38), did Yitzchak have only one blessing to bestow? Why couldn’t their father have repeated the same blessing – or given one of equal worth – to Esav?
[parenthetic note: the first episode of Ya’akov’s life, the purchase of the b’khorah, involves an oath. After Esav agrees to sell his rights to Ya’akov, Ya’akov makes him recommit to that sale through an oath. The final scene of Ya’akov’s life, beginning at 47:29, involves his request of Yoseph to be buried in the Land. After Yoseph commits to personally fulfill the request, Ya’akov makes him take an oath. Interesting bookends…but beyond the scope of this shiur.]
THE B’KHORAH – WHERE DID IT GO?
I’d like to ask one more question before beginning to decipher our text.
As we see from Ya’akov gift of a double portion (Ephraim & Menasheh) of land to Yoseph, he was given the financial benefits of the b’khorah (see D’varim 21:17). The verse in Divrei HaYamim states:
The sons of Re’uven the firstborn of Yisra’el. He was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed his birthright was given to the sons of Yoseph son of Yisra’el, so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright; though Yehudah became prominent among his brothers and a ruler came from him, yet the birthright belonged to Yoseph. (Divrei HaYamim I 5:1) Besides the financial benefits of the b’khorah (double inheritance), there seems to be a second component inherent in the b’khorah – political power. The verse indicates that although the financial rights of Re’uven’s b’khorah were bestowed to Yoseph, the political component was given to Yehudah, who became prominent among his brothers. The Midrash (Aggadat B’reisheet #83) adds a third dimension to the b’khorah – Kehunah (priesthood). (This is further demonstrated by the “switch” of these rights and responsibilities to the Levi’im [Bamidbar 3:41] – where it is clear that representation at worship was the duty of the b’khorot -see also Targum Onkelos on B’resheet 49:3).
In other words, until Sinai, the firstborn in a family would inherit three rights: * Double inheritance, * Political control over the family and * Representation of the family at sacrificial rites. On his deathbed, Ya’akov gave the financial-b’khorah to Yoseph and the political-b’khorah to Yehudah – but who received the worship-b’khorah?
KEHUNAH – THE LEGACY OF EVERY FAMILY
We know that the families of Avraham and Yitzchak did not follow the ideal pattern for Jewish family life; in each case, only one son was chosen to carry on the tradition of the family and the rest were sent away. The conventional understanding is that the first proper family within our tradition was that of Ya’akov – 12 sons, all included and all maintainers of the tradition. We therefore expect the firstborn (Re’uven) to be accorded the usual rights appropriate for that position – and are surprised to see them taken away from him.
I’d like to propose another way of understanding Ya’akov’s family. Just as Avraham and Yitzchak’s job was to raise one son to follow in their respective footsteps, similarly Ya’akov had the responsibility to raise twelve sons to build upon the tradition he received. In other words, he was not raising one family – with the eldest occupying the conventional position of b’khor; he was raising twelve families, each of which would have their own b’khor. [Although Re’uven is called b’khor Ya’akov (e.g. B’resheet 35:23), this may be referring to simple birth order, not to position within the family.] This explains how Ya’akov “transferred” the b’khorah to Yoseph – something which is forbidden in Sefer D’varim – (see 21:17 again). He wasn’t eliminating a b’khor – he was simply appointing the family headed by the financial wizard among the sons as “Chief Financial Officer” of his estate (Eretz Yisra’el). In the same way, he appointed Yehudah, who had earned the allegiance of his brothers, as the family that would rule over the other families – but only with regard to those issues which affect all twelve as a unit. Within each family, the b’khor would hold both financial and political rule. Regarding the Kehunah – the spiritual b’khorah – that remained within each of B’nai Yisra’el and became the responsibility of each of their b’khorot.
S’MIKHAH – EMBRACE AND TRANSMISSION
The S’forno (B’resheet 48:18), in explaining the importance of the right hand in Ya’akov’s blessing, states:
Since S’mikhah with the hand focuses the spirit toward the object upon which it is placed, like he placed his hands upon him [referring to Mosheh’s s’mikhah of Yehoshua – Bamidbar (Numbers) 27:23] and the right hand is [generally] stronger than the left, therefore the s’mikhah of the right [hand] will focus more than the s’mikhah of the left. S’mikhah is a Halakhah which first appears in the beginning of Vayyikra:
“v’Samakh Yado” (He shall lay his hand) on the head of the burnt offering.. (1:4)
The Halakhah of s’mikhah requires that in the case of any private offering, immediately prior to slaughtering the animal, the owner of the offering must lay his hands on the animal with all of his strength (MT Ma’aseh haKorbanot 3:13). In his explanation of the meaning behind animal offerings, Ramban (commentary to Vayyikra 1:9) suggests that the person bringing the offering should view himself as if he were on the altar. The catharsis of Korbanot is achieved when the owner experiences his own sacrifice vicariously through the offering. S’mikhah, performed immediately before the offering is slaughtered, is the process by which the owner transmits his energy into the animal in order that the offering truly represent him on the altar.
[On the point of s’mikhah with all of one’s strength – Think of how powerfully we hug a close friend or loved one at times of great sadness or joy – and think of how we hug a casual acquaintance when the occasion calls for it.]
There is another s’mikhah in Halakhah besides that preceding an offering. As S’forno points out, when Mosheh was preparing to transmit the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua, he performed s’mikhah on Yehoshua, laying his hands on Yehoshua’s head. Following S’forno’s reasoning, Mosheh was transmitting his energy/self, to Yehoshua, investing him with (at least) a connection to Mosheh’s experience atop Sinai. Through the 1400 years when s’mikhah was operative (see BT Sanhedrin 14a), each recipient of s’mikhah was given a piece of the experience of Mosheh at Sinai, along with all of the others in the intervening chain. Each recipient had a direct link to the Revelation at Sinai and to the fount from which the Oral Law springs.
THREE TYPES OF B’RAKHOT
Before Sinai, there were three types of b’rakhot bestowed by people:
a) The conventional well-wishing b’rakhah, (e.g. B’resheet 47:7,10).
b) The designation-b’rakhah, (e.g. Ch. 49, where Ya’akov gave his children a b’rakhah – which was, essentially, his last will and testament.) This designation-b’rakhah was an assignment of duties, properties etc. within the family.
c) The conferral-b’rakhah – which was the model for the post- Sinaitic s’mikhah.
Unlike a well-wishing blessing, in which the person who is most deserving gets the finest “wish”, this b’rakhah is a real conferral of power and strength to the recipient. Since this conferral-b’rakhah was a highly charged emotional experience, reflecting a deep connection between the two parties involved, in order for it to be effective, the bestower had to first have a direct connection to the recipient. S’forno (B’resheet 48:10) explains that Ya’akov requested that Yoseph bring his sons close in order to embrace them. The embrace was intended to create the proper emotional and spiritual connection between them to make the conferral-b’rakhah effective.
We can now address those questions we asked about the Yitzchak-Ya’akov- Esav scenario:
Rivkah was aware that Ya’akov had purchased the b’khorah from Esav – meaning that he would be “in charge” of the family affairs, both financial and political. [Yitzchak was evidently unaware of the sale – see 27:19] The person in charge is in the greatest need of support and strength; there are always those who would overthrow him and he has nowhere to go but down. The “underdog”, contradistinctively, can only move up. Rivkah was so concerned that Ya’akov receive Yitzchak’s strength and power – through the conferral-b’rakhah – that she was willing to risk the possibility of a curse.
When Ya’akov approached Yitzchak, his father embraced him (27:22), attended to his voice (ibid.) – and “blessed” him. (This is apparently a conferral-b’rakhah, as there are no blessing-words provided here). Yitzchak then ate and drank of the venison brought by Ya’akov, embraced him again, smelled his clothes – and “blessed” him again (vv. 25-27). Note that Yitzchak connected with Ya’akov using all four available senses. Subsequent to these b’rakhot, which I am theorizing are both occasions of s’mikhah, Yitzchak stated:
May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you! (27:28-29)
These words are not the b’rakhah – as he has already blessed Ya’akov. Rather, these words represent a verbal version of the strength he has given his son. Not only has he transmitted the ability to receive God’s bounty – he has also given this son the strength to rule over his brother!
There is a textual hint to this idea – in 27:37, Yitzchak declares “I have made him lord over you and have given all of his brothers to him as slaves – and with grain and wine s’makhtiv (I have sustained him)…”; note that Yitzchak himself states that he has performed a type of s’mikhah on Ya’akov!
It is no wonder, then, that Yitzchak is “out of blessings” when the real Esav shows up! How can he give the same ruling strength to two people? The best that he can do is to give Esav the strength that “…when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck” (v. 40).
EPHRAIM AND MENASHEH (REDUX)
We can now go back to our Parashah and understand it in a new light: “They are the sons God has given me here,” Yoseph said to his father. Then Yisra’el said, “Bring them to me so I may bless them.” (48:9) Ya’akov wanted to confer the strength of leadership on Yoseph’s family.
“Now Yisra’el’s eyes were failing because of old age, and he could hardly see. So Yoseph brought his sons close to him, and his father kissed them and embraced them.” (v. 10) In order confer this strength, he had to first connect with these two sons of Yoseph – which he did by embracing them.
“Yisra’el said to Yoseph, “I did not expect to see your face; and here God has let me see your children also.” Then Yoseph removed them from his father’s knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth.” (vv. 11- 12) Here we see that the original embrace (v. 10) was merely a preparation for the b’rakhah, not the b’rakhah itself.
“And Yoseph took both of them, Ephraim on his right toward Yisra’el’s left hand and Menasheh on his left toward Yisra’el’s right hand, and brought them close to him. But Yisra’el reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Menasheh’s head, since Menasheh was the firstborn.” (vv. 13-14) Since Menasheh was the b’khor, he would always maintain that status and would be the spiritual leader of that family. Menasheh’s position in the family necessitated that he not be switched to the left side – so, in order for Ya’akov to give Ephraim the “stronger” b’rakhah, he had to cross his arms.
“Then he blessed Yoseph and said, “May the God before whom my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who has delivered me from all harm may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak, and may they increase greatly upon the earth.”” (vv. 15-16) Note that here he is blessing Yoseph, not Yoseph’s sons; this is a well-wishing-b’rakhah, not the gist of the conferral-b’rakhah given to Ephraim and Menasheh.
“When Yoseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him; so he took his father’s hand, to remove it from Ephraim’s head to Menasheh’s head. Yoseph said to his father, “Not so, my father! Since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused, and said, “I know, my son, I know; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.”” (vv. 17-19) This (previously) enigmatic response is now clear: Ya’akov is not “favoring the winner”; he is giving the greatest strength (his right hand, following S’forno’s explanation) to the son who will need it most – whose progeny will be more numerous and widespread.
“So he blessed them that day, saying, By you Yisra’el will invoke blessings, saying, ‘God make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh.’ ” So he put Ephraim ahead of Menasheh.” (v. 20) Again, as in the Yitzchak-Ya’akov story, a second embrace leads to a second conferral-b’rakhah. Ya’akov then verbalizes a consequence of the b’rakhah – that these two boys will be the model of all blessings. This is, however, not the essence of the b’rakhah, which is the conferral of power.
The Midrash Tanhuma indicates that his younger brother will be greater than he refers to Yehoshua’, who will come from the tribe of Ephraim and will conquer the Land. Interesting, is it not, that this s’mikhah was a forerunner to the first “official” s’mikhah given – as Mosheh lay his hands on the head of Yehoshua’ and conferred upon him the mantle of leadership.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.