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Parshas Yom Kippur (5771)

A Blessing on Your Head

One of the most beautiful customs that many Jewish people have is the Birkas HaBanim – the blessing that parents give their child(ren) every Friday night. Anyone who has ever witnessed this special moment of love and connection between parent and child knows the power that it has. [Even those who don’t observe this particular custom every Friday night will at least bless their children once a year before leaving for the synagogue for Kol Nidrei after the final Erev Yom Kippur meal.]

On Friday Night, just before the Shabbos meal begins, the children come to their parents one by one to receive their blessing. (In some homes the father gives the blessing to each child; in others it is both parents.) Both hands are placed on the child’s head – signifying that the blessing is being conveyed with complete generosity of spirit - and the following blessing is recited:

For a boy:
Y’simcha Elo-him ke-Ephraim v’chi-Menashe
May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe.

For a girl:
Y’simeich Elo-him ke-Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, ve-Leah
May G-d make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

For both: Ye’varech’echa A-donoy ve-yish’merecha.
Ya’eir A-donoy panav eilecha vee’chu’neh’ka.
Yisa A-donoy panav eilecha, ve-yaseim lecha shalom

May G-d bless you and watch over you.
May G-d shine His face toward you and show you favor.
May G-d be favorably disposed toward you and may He grant you peace.

Afterward, it's perfectly okay to give a little hug and whisper something personal into the child's ear, praising something special he or she did during the week, or just to say “I love you”. It's your special moment with your child – even though you might have a whole table full of guests watching - use it as a way of connecting in your own personal way.

The words of the blessing for a boy are taken from the blessing that our forefather Jacob gave to Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, just before he died (see Genesis 48:20). The commentaries explain that Menashe and Ephraim were singled out as models for blessing because they were the first Jews born and raised in exile. Yet even though they were surrounded by all types of foreign influences, they grew up to be proud Jews, totally committed to their faith. Our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah also grew up in alien surroundings and yet became the Mothers of our Nation. We thus bless our own children that they emulate these great Jewish role models and grow up to be proud Jews who recognize the beauty of our faith, and who remain committed – no matter where they are and who they are with - to G-d and His Torah their entire lives.

The three verses we recite for both boys and girls form the “Priestly Blessings” that the Kohanim (priests) are commanded by G-d to bless the Jewish people with each day in the Land of Israel and on special occasions in the Diaspora (see Numbers 6:24-26). The priests were designated as the instruments through which G-d allows His blessing to rest upon Israel. In the same way, parents in their own families serve as agents to bestow G-d’s blessing upon their children.

If parents are merely “vehicles” for G-d’s blessing to pass on to their children, it makes sense that the blessings should be given at a time when the parents are most suited to receive such blessings themselves. Hence it is the custom to bless the children on Friday night when the parents are removed from the mundane, physical, stress-filled world and have entered into the spiritually holy and tranquil state of Shabbos. And certainly at the onset of the holiest day of the year – Yom Kippur – it is a particularly auspicious time for such blessings.

The Otsar HaTefillos Siddur (p. 624) offers a different explanation as to why we bless the children on Friday night. It often happens that parents get angry with their children during the hectic work-week and might even yell at them and say hurtful things. So when Shabbos begins, and peace once again reigns in the home, the parents now have the opportunity to bless their children and to ‘counter’ whatever nasty things they may have said to them during the past six days – thus reaffirming their love and affection for their children.

I can tell you from many years of personal experience that of all the beautiful rituals and meaningful traditions that a secular or non-observant Jew witnesses at a traditional Jewish home – the one that touches them most, and most deeply, is seeing parents bless their children with the Birkas HaBanim on Friday night.

I believe the reason for this is because that one moment of connection between parent and child combines within it all that is missing - and desperately needed more than ever – in the secular world.

The Blessing of the Children signals the beginning of the traditional Shabbos meal when all members of the family and guests sit together for a few hours of eating, drinking, shmoozing, singing Shabbos Zemiros (songs) and sharing Divrei Torah (Torah insights from the weekly Torah portion) – precious, quality “family time” which is so lacking in the world today. [There are actually three such traditional meals every Shabbos – the first meal on Friday night, the second meal on Saturday morning, and Shalosh Seudos (the Third Meal) just before Shabbos ends.]

The Birkas HaBanim also represents the continuity of the Jewish people. Each new generation comes to the one preceding it to accept upon itself the awesome responsibility and blessed privilege of being yet another link in the chain that is the nation of Israel, and vows to emulate the great Jews of generations past who were proud of their heritage and who lovingly and devotedly passed it on to their children. What better guarantee of the Jewish people’s continuity at a time when so many of brothers and sisters have assimilated and severed that link.

Finally, the Blessing of the Children affords parents the opportunity to give personal attention to each individual child, making each one feel important and special - in the presence of his/her siblings and the guests – which goes a long way in developing the child’s self-esteem and general feeling of worthiness. In today’s generation, when so many children and adults in the world at large seem to have little or no self-esteem, it is no wonder that this weekly blessing strikes such an emotional cord with those who witness it.

Now I am fully aware that not everyone reading this “z-mail” observes Shabbos or even has a family meal together on Friday nights, so that implementing the Birkas HaBanim ritual might be a bit difficult (although parents can certainly bless their child without sitting down to a Shabbos meal).

But maybe on this Yom Kippur – as part our resolutions for the Jewish New Year – we can take it upon ourselves once a month (if not weekly) to sit down together with our children (and whatever extended family and other guests we care to invite) on Friday night for a proper Shabbos meal, so that we can experience the beauty and awesome power of the age-old tradition of blessing our children.

Have a Meaningful Fast!

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