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Blessing and Atonement: Blessings, Honoring Parents, Atonement and Closeness

Dr. Einat Ramon
| 11/09/2011
Birth and Children
High Holidays
Prayer and Synagogues
Symbols and Rituals

If we stop a moment to think back and ask ourselves how our Jewish identity has been formed by our individual experience, what has influenced us to keep the tradition of our ancestors, and in rare cases to join the Jewish people in order to become part of its national and religious life – in most cases, we probably will recall childhood memories of our parents, who guided us to continue in their way of life. Perhaps it was family Shabbat excursions, prayer services, or the Shabbat meals; perhaps it was discussions on Jewish identity or the Seder table. We each have our own childhood memory, distant or recent.

Jewish children in 19th or 20th century Europe (many of whom were not in synagogue on the High Holidays) must have been spiritually nourished by the emotionally charged blessing they received on Yom Kippur Eve from parents or grandparents, who placed their trembling hands on the child’s head and blessed him or her through tears. The memory of this moving moment, which does not contain the content of the personal blessing, has been aptly described by Yehezkel Kotik (of Kamentz-Litovsk, in the Province of Grodno, 1847-1921), a Jewish intellectual with Hasidic roots:

Grandfather began to bless the children on one side of the room, Grandmother on the other. He would call each child by name, in order: first the older sons, daughters and daughters-in-law, followed by his daughters’ daughters… Even newborn infants were brought to be blessed. Grandfather started by blessing the males, from the eldest to the two-week old babe resting on a cushion carried by his mother. He would place his hands on the child’s head and bless him. Then he blessed the women, also according to order of age.

As he gave his blessing, Grandfather would weep bitterly, a sobbing that could melt stone. Everyone, of every age, of course cried with him. The air carried a mix of crying sounds, low and shrill.  An outside observer could well think that the city had been destroyed.

As soon as he finished, all moved to Grandmother to receive her blessing. She also cried, but quietly. She would lay her gaunt hand on the child’s head and the tears would silently flow…. The blessing ceremony would take more than two hours. (David Asaf, ed., What I Saw: Memoirs of Yehezkel Kotik (1847-1921), 2009, Ben Yehuda Project,

Bella Chagall, the wife of painter Marc Chagall, describes the scene from her family, members of the Habad Hasidim:

The parents placed their hands on each child’s head and blessed them.  Even the older children seemed small under the spread palms of the parents’ hands on their heads. I, the youngest, was last. Father, his eyes downcast, placed his hand on my head, and the tears immediately came to my eyes. I could hardly hear his words – his voice was by then hoarse.

I felt as if I were set on fire by the wax candle made by my mother, and purified. I left the circle of fire formed by his burning hands, giving light as he blessed me, and I moved under my mother’s  anxious hand.

Here I relaxed somewhat. I felt closer to her tears. I heard her simple and heartfelt prayers, and I did not wish to remove myself from under her hands.  When she finished her murmured blessings, I immediately felt a chill. (Bella Chagall, Lit Candles, Tel Aviv: Dvir Publishers, 1970, p. 67).

What has happened to this beautiful and moving tradition? Why do the guides to holiday observance written for non-Orthodox Jews omit this custom? How is it described in Orthodox guides? Former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yisrael M. Lau (1978, 1988) writes in his book Practical Judaism:

It is customary before leaving for synagogue for the head of the family to bless his children, each separately, according to the birkat habanim. (Rabbi Y.M. Lau, Practical Judaism, Shaul Meislich, ed., Tel Aviv: Masada, p. 208).

It seems, then, that this rare and instructive custom of parents blessing their children has waned over the years. Orthodox rabbis have turned it into a purely technical matter, and secular researchers of Jewish tradition have dismissed it altogether. Both have removed any educational and philosophical significance from this custom, and the opportunity for a gentle, loving message to the child about the values and life we wish for him or her has been lost. How has this occurred?

It may be that the reason for the disappearance of this magical moment of a personal blessing to the children is to be found not in theological leanings, for even an atheist can freely take part in it, but rather in the loss of parental authority in a culture that celebrates revolution. This hundred-year old trend crosses cultures and borders, but commonly involves a lack of belief on the part of parents that they have anything of value to transmit to their children, and the children seek neither guidance nor a blessing from their parents.  This rebellion perhaps began in the 1960’s, or could be rooted in the socialist–nationalist revolutions that took place in the late 19th century. At the start, children rebelled against parents; but parents subsequently stopped believing in the need to guide their children.  A riveting depiction of this rift is to be found in the memoirs of the Israeli secular journalist Neri Livneh, writing about her memory of Rosh Hashanah Eve in the year 5768:

My father, donned in a blue satin kippa with pronounced creases indicating its fresh exit from the package, and a creaseless white shirt, sat alone at the teak dining room table situated in the ‘lithall,’…looking sad despite his festive clothes and kippa that so rarely adorned his head.

In the next room, called the ‘salon,’ sitting on the sofa bed, were his two children – my elder brother and me. My mother, with an accusing look, bounced back and forth between the table in the hall and the armchair in the salon that faced the Grundig television. My 14-year old brother, at the height of his rebellion against our parents, resisted what he termed their religious coercion and hypocrisy. He had already, a week earlier, announced his unwillingnes to sit at a holiday table at which any words of Jewish text were to be recited. I, ten years old, blindly followed him like a fool.

That is why, that year, my parents were forced to refuse the customary invitation from our relatives on the kibbutz to join them for the holiday meal, depriving my grandparents of the chance they so eagerly anticipated to spend the holiday with their daughter. We stayed home in our municpal workers’apartment, because of the principles of a fanatic anti-religious charismatic 14 –year old, who turned the holiday into a complete disaster for our father, descendent of a haredi family…

Evading family holiday celebrations became a sport for me and for my friends. Once I even hosted a holiday meal for all my friends who, like me, employed manipulations or outright lies in order to escape from celebrating the holidays with their own families, calling themselves “orphans by choice.” We thought we were so original, witty and true to ourselves. I didn’t realize that one day it would be too late.

Everyone is mortal, but no one truly believes that one’s parents, and the foundations that were in place when one came into the world, are transient. Neither can one imagine how it feels to be orphaned, whatever one’s age, until it happens. (“The Season of Orphanhood,” Neri Livneh, Ha’aretz, Rosh Hashanah Eve 5768).

This phenomenon is summarized by the writer and psychologist Wendy Mogel of Los Angeles in her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (2001).  The book describes a girl who shows disdain towards her elder relatives. Her parents regret this but are unwilling to restrain her. Mogel writes: “I recalled the protest buttons and T-shirts from the 1960’s and early 1970’s that sported the maxims ‘Question authority’ and ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30.’“  Here were two parents well past 30, but whose political philosophy was destroying their family life. (Wendy Mogel, PhD., The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, New York, Penguin Compass, 2001, p.68).

The American sociologist Christopher Lasch, in his book Haven in a Heartless World (1977), explains that the disconnect between authority and love in the parent-older child relationship has caused parents to accept their own irrelevance, as if parenting is an obsolete institution. (Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged, New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1977, pp. 174-175).

Is the trivialization, even the negation, of the parental blessing on Yom Kippur Eve derived from the rebellion against authority that has turned us all into perpetual youths because we fear to be adults? What is required in order for parents and grandparents to spread their canopy of hopes and dreams over the younger generation and inspire them with their blessings? The tradition teaches that it is the young who must seek their elder’s blessing.

In Jewish tradition, it is our cousin Esau whom the midrash praises for honoring his parents in an exemplary fashion. Although portrayed in othermidrashim as the archetype hater of Israel, the Book of Genesis teaches us only that even without the loss of his birthright, Esau could not have merited to lead the monotheistic religion in the face of social pressure that supported idol worship.  Instead, Jacob was endowed with the strength of character to fulfill that mission, entitling him to the birthright. Yet, the Rabbis taught that in the area of respect for parents, Esau was unparalleled. It is he who teaches us  excellence in the fulfillment of this mitzva. The following midrash in Tanhuma describes him thus:

Come and see, how delightful the mitzva of honoring parents is to the Holy One Blessed be He, who rewards both the righteous and the wicked for fulfillment of this mitzva. Esau the wicked was thus rewarded; after Isaac blessed Jacob, and ‘Esau lifted up his voice and wept’ (Gen. 27:38)…. God rewarded him for honoring his father. How much greater is the reward for one who honors his parents and fulfills other mitzvot as well. (Tanhuma Kedoshim 15).

The writer S.Y. Agnon sums it up as follows: “A person should always seek a blessing from his/her father and mother and especially on Yom Kippur Eve. Come and learn of Esau’s reward for crying out (Genesis 27), ‘Bless me, too, my father,’ and God granted him peace of mind.”  (S.Y. Agnon, Yamim Noraim (Hebrew), Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1979, p. 245).

As the New Year approaches we are left asking ourselves whether we will learn to inspire our children with our blessing, and, if our parents are still alive, to ask them for their blessing before they are taken from us; a blessing that is as a thread that links the generations and binds us together in one Jewish human fabric.

Shana tova and g’mar hatima tova, may we merit a good year and be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Dr. Einat Ramon teaches modern Jewish thought and literature and Jewish feminism at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Einat Ramon is a senior lecturer in Jewish thought and Jewish Women’s Studies at Schechter and one of the founders of professional spiritual care in Israel (she is the writer of Israeli spiritual caregivers’ standards and ethical code.)  In 2012 she founded the Marpeh program – the only academic program for the training of spiritual caregivers in the context of pluralistic Jewish studies, where she teaches and supervises chaplaincy students and Israeli pastoral education supervisors-in-training. Dr. Ramon writes academic and popular books and articles about contemporary Hassidic spirituality, the philosophy and methods of spiritual care , Zionist and North American Jewish thought, and modern Jewish women’s theology and ethics— particularly concerning family and bioethics issues. She is a third generation native Jerusalemite, received her doctorate in Religious Studies from Stanford University, she is married to (Reform) Rabbi Arik Ascherman and is a mother of two.

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