Every Jewish parent knows that when it comes to blessing our children, Ephraim comes first. This is rooted in a passage in this week’s Torah portion. “He [Jacob] blessed them on that day saying, ‘With you Israel will bless, ‘may G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,’ and he placed Ephraim before Manasseh.”
The story that preceded this is well known. When Joseph brought his sons to his father Jacob for a blessing, he placed the older son, Manasseh, to Jacob’s right and his younger son, Ephraim, to Jacob’s left. However, when placing his hands upon his grandchildren’s heads to bless them, Jacob crossed his hands. He placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head and his left hand on Manasseh’s head.
When Joseph told him that Manasseh was the firstborn, Jacob insisted that he knew that. However, Ephraim would eclipse Manasseh, which is why he had crossed his hands. When it came to blessing the children, Jacob once again placed Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” placing Ephraim once again before Manasseh.
At A Circumcision
The great second century sage, Yonatan ben Uziel, who wrote an Aramaic translation of the Torah, put it like this: The Jewish people will bless their babies on the day of their Bris—their circumcision ceremony, “may G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
This is a tradition that dates back at least to the second century and perhaps even earlier. Today, there are still many communities that have this custom. But the day of circumcision is certainly not the only time that Jewish parents bestow this blessing upon their children. This is the blessing that many parents offer every week before Shabbat. It is also the blessing that we offer on special occasions such as life-cycle celebrations, milestones, and of course every year on Erev Yom Kippur.
Why did Yonatan highlight the day of circumcision?
The Eighth Day
Circumcisions are held on the eighth day of the baby’s life. If the baby is unwell, the circumcision might be postponed, but it is never held earlier than the eighth day. Why do we wait to celebrate the birth of a child until they are eight days old?
This question is not about why circumcisions are held at the age of eight days. There are many ways to answer that question. This question is why we don’t hold a celebration of birth as soon as the child is born. Why do we wait until the circumcision—eight days after the birth?
The answer is that it underscores our understanding of life’s purpose. The Talmud tells us that it is easier not to be born than to be born. Once we are born, we need to live on the earthly plain, the mortal coil, where spirituality and Divinity are unknown, where kindness and love are rarely shown, and where ego and selfishness are overblown.
Why did our heavenly souls come to earth? Because the Torah was given on earth, and only here can we fulfill its commandments. It is easier in Heaven where G-d’s presence and proximity can be enjoyed. But it is better on earth where we can serve G-d. In Heaven, G-d asks nothing of our souls.
With this understanding, it makes sense that we postpone any celebration of birth until the circumcision, when the baby fulfills its first Mitzvah. The newborn is too young to fulfill any other Mitzvah. His life is therefore neither easy for his soul—who was dispatched to earth, nor for his body—who is too young to serve G-d.
On the eighth day, when the baby is circumcised, and fulfills his first Mitzvah, we have good reason to celebrate. We can finally justify the difficult journey through which we put our child’s soul.
This explains the tradition of offering the blessing, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” at a circumcision.
Ephraim was a Torah scholar who spent his days studying with his grandfather Jacob whereas Manasseh was a statesman who served as his father’s chief of staff. In life, we are each required to play both roles.
We have our religious persona that prays, studies, celebrates Shabbat and Jewish festivals, and gives generously to charity. And we have our secular personas who earn degrees, develop businesses or professions, enjoy hobbies and pastimes, thrive with friends, and compete with colleagues.
The only question is which comes first; which is the means, and which is the end? Are our secular endeavors and success a means that enable us to pursue our holy endeavors or are they an end unto themselves? Who should our children learn about first, Moses or Shakespeare, the bible or art, Talmud or science? What is the priority, to succeed and to provide or to serve G-d and be holy? Is it our Ephraim persona or our Manasseh persona?
I should add that Ephraim and Manasseh both studied Torah and both helped in the palace, but each played to his strength. So, when they appeared before Jacob, he had to decide whom to prioritize. In terms of physical years, Manasseh was senior. In terms of spiritual achievement, Ephraim was senior. Jacob chose Ephraim.
This is our blessing to our child on the day of his circumcision. Although he was alive for eight full days, we haven’t celebrated his physical life yet because life on earth without the opportunity to serve G-d, is nothing to celebrate. The baby has two elements, his body, and his soul. His body is eight days old; his soul enters his body at the time of circumcision.
Which is senior, which is prioritized, the body or the soul? The one who is physically older or the one who is spiritually more advanced?
By chanting the blessing, may G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh, we give voice to our priorities. We bless our child that he prioritizes his younger, but holier soul, over his older, but physical body. That he prioritizes a life of Mitzvah over a life of glamor.
There is no need to choose between them, we hope our children have both, but we want them to know which is most important. Which is the means and which is the end.
Indeed, May G-d make us all like Ephraim and Manasseh.