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BLESSING OF CHILDREN:

Among the Ancient Hebrews.

In the domestic life of the ancient Hebrews the mutual respect existing between parents and children was a marked feature. While prominent among other Semitic peoples (Smith, "Rel. of Sem." p. 60), it was of first importance with the Hebrews, as is evident from the frequent mention of the duties toward parents (Ex. xx. 12, xxi. 15; Lev. xix. 3, xx. 9; Num. xxvii. 4; Deut. xxvii. 16; I Sam. ii. 25; II Sam. xix. 20; Jer. xxxv. 18; Mal. i. 6; Prov. i. 8, iii. 12, x. 1, xxix. 3, xxx. 11; I. Chron. xvii. 13). The natural accompaniment of this was the value placed on the favor of parents, and notably on their blessing pronounced upon the children. The words spoken by parents were supposed to be fraught with power to bring good or ill, blessing or curse. Happy was he who was so fortunate as to receive the father's blessing; wretched he upon whom rested the father's curse. These statements are based particularly upon incidents in the lives of the Patriarchs, as set forth in the Book of Genesis. Noah (Gen. ix. 26) blesses Shem and Japheth, the sons who had covered his nakedness, and curses Ham, the disrespectful son; and that blessing and curse were looked upon as determining the future superiority of the descendants of the two first-mentioned sons and the eternal servitude of the offspring of Ham. In the story of the blessing of Isaac (ib. xxvii. 7 et seq.), Rebekah makes every effort to secure the paternal benediction for her favorite son, Jacob. The importance attached to the blessing appears also from Esau's heartrending cry, "Hast thou but one blessing, my father? bless me, even me, also, O my father" (Gen. xxvii. 38). The blessing, even though obtained by deceit, could not be recalled. The father's voice was the instrument through which God spoke; and the words, once pronounced, were regarded as the declaration of the Deity.

High Value of Paternal Blessing.

The paternal blessing was the most valuable heritage that parents could bequeath to children. In recognition of all the good that he had enjoyed at Joseph's hands and of all the honors received during his sojourn in Egypt, Jacob bestowed a particular blessing upon Joseph's sons: "Bring them, I pray thee, unto me, and I will bless them" (Gen. xlviii. 9). Especial importance attaches to this blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh by Jacob, because it became the formula by which, in later days throughout Israel, the children were blessed by their parents, in accordance with the word of the patriarch, "In thee shall Israel bless, saying, God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh" (ib. 20). And the favorite son Joseph was given the assurance, "The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren" (Gen. xlix. 26). It is thus evident from the whole spirit of Biblical ethics that the parents' good-will and blessing were regarded as the greatest happiness that could come to children, and it is well known to those who are at all familiar with Jewish domestic life that this sentiment continues to the present day.

In Later Jewish Literature.

The customs of a people do not always find expression in its literature. The most prevalent sentiments are frequently not set down in words, for the very reason that, being so commonly held, they do not call for comment. Fortunately, however, there are several expressions in later Jewish literature showing the value attached to the parents' blessing. The author of Ecclesiasticus undoubtedly voices the belief of his generation when he declares, "The blessing of the father builds houses to the sons, the curse of the mother destroys them" (Ecclus. [Sirach] iii. 9); and the Rabbis indicate their attitude by the remarkable statement, "Scripture ranks the cursing of father and mother with the cursing of God" (Ḳid. 30b). The feeling of reverence and awe for the parental benediction well expresses the sentiment that has always prevailed in most Jewish communities. One of the most beautiful of Jewish customs is the blessing of the children by the father on all important occasions, notably on the Sabbath eve, on the holidays, on the setting forth on a journey, etc. Ludwig Philippson, in his memoirs ("Allg. Zeit. des Jud." 1887, p. 750), mentions that his grandfather blessed him on Sabbath morning after divine service. This blessing as pronounced upon the boys is, "May God make thee like Ephraim and Manasseh" (Gen. xlviii. 20), and upon the girls, "May God make thee like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah" (compare Ruth iv. 12); and, in addition to this regular formula, any special blessing may be added according to the desire of the one bestowing the benediction.

Occasions for the Blessing.

There is no means of knowing how old this beautiful custom may be. The earliest mention of it is found in a passage in the "Brautspiegel," a popular treatise on morals, written by Moses Henochs; the book appeared in Basel in 1602. In the forty-third chapter, which is devoted to advice on the training of children, the writer says, "Before the children can walk they should be carried on Sabbath and holidays to the father and mother to be blessed; after they are able to walk they shall go of their own accord with bowed body and shall incline their heads and receive the blessing (Güdemann, "Quellenschriften zur Geschichte des Unterrichts und der Erziehung bei den Deutschen Juden," p. 167). Buxtorf, in "Synagoga Judaica," which was first published in 1604, writes in the fifteenth chapter of the book entitled "How the Jews Prepare for the Sabbath and Begin It," the following: "After the service [on Sabbath eve in the synagogue] is finished, they seek their home; in parting from one another they wish each other not good-day nor good-night, but a happy Sabbath: the parents bless their children, the teachers their pupils." At the beginning of the seventeenth century the custom was general. Another mention of it, at a much later date, occurs in the prayer-book of Rabbi Jacob Emden, printed first in Altona, 1748. A long passage in this book begins with the words: "It is the custom in Israel to bless the children on Sabbath eve after service or upon entering the house." He says further that this blessing brings God's spirit upon the children who are not yet old enough to secure it by their own deeds. This indicates that as in early Biblical days, so in later times, the parental blessing was believed to be invested with a certain higher power, and to be efficacious for good. To this day this blessing is prized highly by the children.

The value thus laid upon the benediction spoken by the father and mother represents the constancy in Jewish life of the working of forces that make for righteousness; and it is one of the constituent factors of what Lazarus has so well termed the "continuity of the Jewish spirit" ("Ethics of Judaism," pt. ii., p. 213).

K. D. P.
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