When we bless our son on Shabbat we ask that he be like Ephraim and Manasseh. Who were they and why do we wish that our son emulates them?
That is a wonderful question. Manasseh and Ephraim were Joseph's two sons that were born to him prior to his father, Jacob, arriving in Egypt.
When Jacob was about to pass away, he called Joseph to his bedside and asked to bless his two sons. Jacob told Joseph that these two boys, his grandsons, are like sons to him -- "Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine like Reuben and Simeon." Thus, unlike all of Jacob's other grandchildren, Manasseh and Ephraim became two independent tribes -- on par with their holy uncles, Jacob's sons. They both maintained their own "flags," and when the land of Israel was divided amongst the Israelites, they both received independent portions.
Jacob then blessed his two grandsons and added the following words: "With you, Israel will bless, saying, 'May G‑d make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.'" This is why we bless our sons with the words: "May G‑d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh."
Perhaps one might say that the highlight of their character is their remarkable upbringing. They were born and raised in Egypt, in a profoundly secular society, a place where the people were not of high character. Yet they remained faithful to the morals and ideals that were espoused by their grandfather Jacob, as they were transmitted through their father Joseph. To be great amongst great people is also a challenge, but to maintain a high level of spirituality and character amongst a society that is devoid of morals and ethics is the real test. This is why Jacob chose these two boys to be his own. They were able to prove true strength of character. How does one know if a fish is healthy? If it can swim upstream; against the tide of society.
This is what we wish for our children, too. We would love to forever protect them in our loving, nurturing environment. However, that is usually not a possibility – nor should it be. There will be times in their lives when the beliefs and morals that we raised them with will be challenged by their peers, society or the environment. "Be like Manasseh and Ephraim," we bless/tell them. Have the strength to be able to withstand the pressures of society and do the right thing.
Note: It is customary in many communities for parents to administer this blessing to their children on Friday nights before the kiddush. Others, including Chabad chassidim, reserve this special children's blessing for the moments before the onset of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. Many also preface this blessing with the Priestly blessing:
"The L-rd spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them: 'May the L-rd bless you and watch over you. May the L-rd cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the L-rd raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace.' They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them."
See also Menasseh and Ephraim
Rabbi Shmuel Kogan,