An ungendered Birkat Yeladim

בירכת ילדים

יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה:

יְשַׁלֵּ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה פָּעֳלֵ֑ךְ וּתְהִ֨י מַשְׂכֻּרְתֵּ֜ךְ שְׁלֵמָ֗ה:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

Blessing for Children

May God make you like Ephraim and like Menashe.

May God reward your deeds with complete reckoning.

May God bless and protect you.

May God deal kindly and graciously with you.

May God bestow favor upon you and grant you peace.

(כ) וַיְבָ֨רֲכֵ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַהוּא֮ לֵאמוֹר֒ בְּךָ֗ יְבָרֵ֤ךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֶת־אֶפְרַ֖יִם לִפְנֵ֥י מְנַשֶּֽׁה׃

(20) So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh.

(יב) יְשַׁלֵּ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה פָּעֳלֵ֑ךְ וּתְהִ֨י מַשְׂכֻּרְתֵּ֜ךְ שְׁלֵמָ֗ה מֵעִ֤ם יְהוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֖את לַחֲס֥וֹת תַּֽחַת־כְּנָפָֽיו׃

(12) May the LORD reward your deeds. May you have a full recompense from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge!”

(כד) יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ (ס) (כה) יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃ (ס) (כו) יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃ (ס)

(24) The LORD bless you and protect you! (25) The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you! (26) The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!

In creating a בירכת ילדים that worked for me in my genderqueerness, I wanted a solution that fit in with richness of the tradition but also broke down the gendered nature of the blessing.

The existing recommendations essentially combined the language used for boys and girls, tacking on Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah to Ephraim and Menashe.

This bothered me for a couple of reasons:

  • It took a verse that is a direct quotation from the Torah and inserted language.
  • It felt like a combination of femininity and masculinity, rather than an ungendered blessing.
  • There was no clear connection between the Matriarchs and Ephraim and Menashe.

These problems led to the question, Why do we use ישמך אלהים כשרה רבקה רחל ולאה to begin with? It's not a biblical quote, nor does it have any textual precedent other than the siddur. The matriarchs certainly have merits that should be reflected in children, but then why aren't boys blessed with the merits of the patriarchs? (Or for that matter, all children with all of the foreparents?)

I could not find a satisfactory answer, particularly when the reasons for using the verse about Ephraim and Menashe were so available and textual--Ya'akov instructs that Yisrael will be blessed in their names. Their merits are well established within the texts, including that their individuality as peers with different strengths contributes to the value of using their names in the blessings, since each child is different.

While I could have settled that יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה would have been sufficient for children of any gender, both the historical nature of the verse's stature as a blessing specifically for boys and the feminist need to recognize non-male figures and strengths within Jewish canon called for an addition.

The language in מגילת רות held several great opportunities, and I settled upon the verse above. This is part of Boaz's praise upon meeting Ruth, acknowledging her dedication to Naomi and to faith.

There were a few reasons that I selected this verse:

1. It's a direct quote framed in the second person, which is unusual for biblical blessings.

2. It focuses on the virtue of deliberate action by Ruth, and particularly action that is characterized by חסד: Boaz later says on the threshing floor,

"בְּרוּכָ֨ה אַ֤תְּ לַֽיהוָה֙ בִּתִּ֔י הֵיטַ֛בְתְּ חַסְדֵּ֥ךְ הָאַחֲר֖וֹן מִן־הָרִאשׁ֑וֹן" (Ruth 3:10)

and earlier Naomi blesses both Rut and Orpah "עשה [יַ֣עַשׂ] יְהוָ֤ה עִמָּכֶם֙ חֶ֔סֶד כַּאֲשֶׁ֧ר עֲשִׂיתֶ֛ם עִם־הַמֵּתִ֖ים וְעִמָּדִֽי" (Ruth 1:8) [These verses also could be candidates, but I left them because they are so specific and refer to more complicated contexts (death and sex, and in the latter it compares multiple actions, and is thus less generalizable.)

3. Like with Ephraim and Menashe, it does NOT focus on the virtue of Rut as a matriarch; when later the townsfolk offer the blessing to Boaz and Rut

"יִתֵּן֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֶֽת־הָאִשָּׁ֜ה הַבָּאָ֣ה אֶל־בֵּיתֶ֗ךָ כְּרָחֵ֤ל ׀ וּכְלֵאָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר בָּנ֤וּ שְׁתֵּיהֶם֙ אֶת־בֵּ֣ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל" (Ruth 4:11),

Rachel and Leah are held up as great examples of building the nation. While a feminist reading would certainly interpret the virtue to be that building a nation includes upbringing and imparting of values--certainly laudable actions--Ephraim and Menashe's virtues seem to be divorced from their role as patriarchs. We use ישמך ...כאפרים וכמנשה instead of המלאך הגואל which invokes the patriarchs for birkat yeladim, which encourages the role of a child to take a part in the community rather than just create the next generation.

Upon these reasons, I then combined the verses to first invoke the continuity of blessings and the individuality of the child being blessed, then the blessings of individual action, and finally the divine blessings coming from the priestly association (and possibly one of the oldest components of our liturgy!)

This formulation maintains a connection with tradition, improves upon the formulations available by only using textual sources with clear connection and reasoning, and serves to degender the blessing by calling upon quoted, mixed gender texts which have merit for children of any gender.

Created in consultation with Rabbi Avi Strausberg, Director of National Learning Initiatives at Hadar Institute