Growing up Haber, it was the regular thing. Every Friday night after Kiddush, we would all line up in front of our parents for a bracha, a blessing that we should be like Ephraim and Menashe for the boys, or like the Matriarchs for the girls, followed by the standard Priestly Blessing. I thought this was replicated in all Jewish households all over the world. As we got married, we all continued the tradition of our parents, blessing our children on Friday night.
Last week while reading Rabbi Oizer Alport’s excellent Parsha Potpourri, I came across an interesting dispute between Rav Yaakov Emden and the Vilna Gaon. In his Siddur, Rav Yaakov Emden writes that the Minhag Yisrael is to bless the children Friday night, gives several Kabalistic reasons for it, and then adds that both hands should be placed on the child’s head, “unlike those who are mentally deficient and think that only on hand should be put on the child’s head.” His own father, he adds, the Chacham Tzvi, used both hands when blessing him.
In the Siddur of the Vilna Gaon the custom to bless one’s children is also cited but he says that only Kohanim can use two hands, everyone else has to use one to differentiate. The stance of the Vilna Gaon is also cited in the Torah Temimah Chumash (Bamidbar 6:23). (see also Biur Halacha OC 128 and Piskei Teshuvos).
I was spurned by this to conduct an informal, unscientific survey, as to what people do. The choices were:
a) One hand
b) Two hands
You can imagine my surprise when about 85% of the respondents came back with:
c) None of the above
People don’t give their kids bracha’s!!
My respondents ran the gamut of European geographical backgrounds, from (non-practicing) Yekke’s to Hungaian, Romanian, Lithuanian and Polish. There were unfortunately no Sephardim available.
It seems obvious that Rav Yaakov Emden and the Vilna Gaon practiced this Minhag, in addition the Talmidim of the Arizal speak about it. In fact, the Arizal would kiss his mother’s hand upon arriving home Friday night, in order to “prepare” it for the blessing. This is the origin of the Sephardic Minhag to kiss the hand of one about to give a blessing. There is also a custom for the blessee to kiss the blesser’s hand after receiving the blessing (Otzar Hayedios).
Chaya Fisherman quotes sources in Russia, the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities of Amsterdam and the Ethiopian communities that say that parents blessed their children every Shabbos. The Chasam Sofer (OC 23) entertains the notion that one should give the brachos every day!
The reason given are many, ranging from the Kabalistic to the educational to the Siddur Noam Shabbos who write that parents may inadvertently curse their children out of anger during the week, and the blessings reverse that.
It’s interesting to note that when discussing this Minhag, both Rav Emden and the Gra say that it applies to both Rabbis and parents. As far as I know there is no community where the Rabbi systematically blesses all the children. The extremely notable exception to this is the K’hal Adath Jeshurun community where the kids all line up to get a blessing from the Rav Friday nights. Indeed Dr. Elliot Bondi (in the biography section of the Torah Dimensions project from the OU) reports that Rav Dr. Joseph Breuer ZT”L would hold this custom very dear and insisted on giving every child a bracha even at the advanced age of 98!
So, I’m still befuddled as to where this Minhag has gone. If anyone has any further information please hit the comments.