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Blessing One’s Daughter on Shabbat

As many know, there is a custom to bless one’s children on Friday night, with the following text:

For a Boy:

Hebrew: ישימך אלוקים כאפרים וכמנשה

English: May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh

For a Girl:

Heb: ישימך אלוקים כשרה רבקה רחל ולאה

Eng: May G-d make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah

Both of these formulae are followed by reciting the “Priestly Blessing” as found in Num 6:24-26:

Heb: יברכך ה’ וישמרך, יאר ה’ פניו אליך ויחונך, ישא ה’ פניו אליך וישם לך שלום

Eng: May G-d bless you and keep you, May G-d make His face shine on you, and show you favor – May G-d lift up His face to you, and give you peace.

The origin of this custom is relatively recent, first mentioned in the 16th century by the brother of the Maharal, R’ Chaim of Friedberg. He writes (Sefer HaChaim, Livelihood Chp. 6):

It is the custom of the world for the father to bless his son, and for the teacher to bless his student, on this holy day, as the blessing pipeline is wide open, and should not be viewed as a mere common blessing. There is another reason as well, for it is typical that a father is angry with his son and curses him during the week, as with the teacher and student, and therefore starting the week with a blessing will make them unable to curse them during the week, as per the verse “I received an instruction to bless; as He blessed I cannot change it” (Num. 23:20)

It is worth noting he focuses only on the Father-Son relationship and does not discuss a Daughter.

Still, where did these particular formulae come from? For the boy, it borrows the phrasing of Gen. 48:20, wherein Jacob (as family patriarch) blesses Joseph’s sons and institutes it as a blessing for fathers to their sons (Sifrei Nasso 18).

For the girl’s equivalent blessing, the origin and reasoning are more unclear. It too is obviously adapted directly from Jacob’s prayer for his grandchildren with alternate female figures in place of Ephraim and Menashe, but the author decided not to select Dinah (as the only daughter of Jacob) Yocheved (Daughter of Levi acc. to Num. 26:50), Serach (Jacob’s granddaughter through Asher) or even Tamar (as Judah’s wife) as the women to be emulated given their positive depictions within Rabbinic Tradition. Instead, the author inserted all four Matriarchs. (Inversely, we could also ask why the blessing for the boy is not similarly inflated to include the patriarchs, but that is more understandable due to a reluctance to alter a blessing’s explicit formula as will be explained further.)

This form is thought to be based on the blessing in the Book of Ruth (4:11) where the elders say: “May the L-rd make the woman entering your house like Rachel and like Leah” (יתן ה’ את האשה הבאה אל ביתך כרחל וכלאה). We can understand why this would not have been directly instituted as a blessing from a father to a daughter, as the context is Boaz claiming the right to marry Ruth, but it is not clear why the author of this blessing failed to maintain the twofold repetition or the use of a simile, i.e. it should read “May G-d make you like Rachel and like Leah”.

As mentioned above, both of these are followed by a recitation of the “Priestly Blessing,” which begs the first question, does a non-Kohen have the right to recite the Priestly Blessing at all?

The Talmud in Ketubot 24b (and Rashi there) indicates that a common Israelite reciting the Priestly Blessing is a transgression against the Torah. One solution suggested by the Bach (OC 128:1) is that the prohibition is only if the non-Kohen raises their hands like the Kohen when giving the blessing. The Torah Temima (Nasso #131) accepts this restriction and references the practice of the students of the Vilna Gaon to bless people utilizing the priestly blessing with only a single hand. This would solve our first problem, except we also know that the common custom is for parents to bless their children with both hands as a Kohen does! This is further supported by the comment of R’ Yaakov Emden in his siddur (and in other works like Yosef Ometz) that this is the correct practice. This position is bolstered by the Pnei Yehoshua who maintains that this whole discussion is only truly relevant to the Temple and to a complete enunciation of the Tetragrammaton, and the Chofetz Chaim (BH 128:1:5) similarly finds a simple solution, maintaining that as long as the context is not a part of prayer, it is clear this is an unrelated practice and not a transgression against a non-priest taking on priestly activity.

Knowing that it is perfectly fine for a parent to recite the priestly blessing, and even to do so with two raised hands, the question lingers on how to recite the Priestly blessing for one’s children. On close examination of the Hebrew, we notice that the Priestly Blessing takes place in the second person masculine form, rather than the feminine (Yevarechecha, etc., rather than Yevarechech, yishmarech, Elech, vchunech, lach) or plural (Yevarechechem, etc.), regardless of whether one is blessing a boy or a girl, or multiple children, and this is the case in every siddur I have seen. Having recently had a daughter myself, the question is more pressing. Why is the blessing recited in the masculine and can we recite the blessing in the feminine grammatical form as would seemingly be appropriate for the situation?

The initial response was that we simply do not change the verses of the Torah when reciting them. Within the Torah, we subscribe to the concept of omnisignificance – that every textual detail is an intentional choice by G-d for us to interpret and implement. It’s written in a specific form for the Kohanim to recite, so the default understanding is that it should only be recited in this manner.

But even so, the Priestly blessing in the Torah has a strange grammar given its context. It is in the second person singular form (לך, to you), despite that the Kohanim reciting it are blessing the entire Jewish people, which should call for a plural form (לכם to you all). One suggestion is that the blessing is not a blessing of the Kohanim to a group of Jews. Rather, they are channeling G-d’s blessing to every Jew as an individual! Regardless of whom or how many are being blessed, the formula remains fixed, but has the intended spiritual effect for each person. Alternatively, it can refer to the Jewish people as a unified nation, where the differences between us as individuals combine to form a greater whole.

Yet our situation is far removed from these interpretations. First of all, no change is required to adapt the text to the feminine form. It is only a question of pronunciation. For another, as pointed out above, we are not speaking of the biblical command to the Kohanim and their blessing, but the blessing of any parent or teacher over their child. Thus my central question remains: Can parents recite the “Priestly” blessing in the feminine form for a daughter?

In searching through the responsa on this question, the consensus I found is surprising. It does not appear that this question was asked in previous generations and several teshuvot struggle to address the issue critically, only blithely mentioning the idea above of not changing the text and/or referring to common custom, which I found to be unsatisfactory. Yet, a few did address the question in a serious manner.

In a teshuva, R’ Yaakov Ariel writes on this issue that indeed, the Friday night blessing is nothing like the Priestly Blessing, and, as a result, a person may bless their daughter however they want, whether they use a blessing above (even the blessing from Ruth), the feminine form or another blessing entirely! (Though he notes that he believes the masculine form covers both genders as well).

Another teshuva from R’ Rahamim Mazouz mentions that if one is blessing both boys and girls, one should follow the normative form, but if blessing a girl alone, the parent can do as they wish – the only thing that matters is one’s intention. (Relevantly, the questioner cites the case of Rav Nissim Hacohen who was of the opinion one could recite either grammatical gender).

Finally, R’ Shlomo Aviner thinks that it is preferable to maintain the masculine pronunciation because that is what is commonly spoken. However, if the daughter (or presumably her parents) insists on the feminine grammar, there is no problem in changing up the formula, even though it contains G-d’s name, as long as there is a holy intentionality to it. (He further cites the example from Rav Moshe Charlap who would bless his grandchildren with the feminine form.)

Altogether it seems to me that, despite what most siddurim and bentchers lead us to think by printing only one version of this blessing, there is no problem in blessing one’s children as their heart desires, including reciting the Priestly blessing in the feminine form over their child or grandchild. In my opinion, this is indeed a proper practice, and one I plan to implement for my daughter and encourage others to consider for their own children.

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