Sign In Forgot Password

Blessing the Children

by Rabbi Eric Solomon

My parents first became active in my childhood shul when my mother walked up to the tone-deaf rabbinical student charged with leading services and said, “Richard (my father) will never volunteer to lead the prayers, but he has a nice voice and if you ask him, he can’t say ‘no’ to the rabbi.” Before my parents could blink, my father was conferred the title of “Cantor” and ended up leading Shabbat and Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days) services for over 30 years.

In that early stage, my father needed some help learning all of the melodies and cantorial traditions, and so he trudged 20 minutes up the road to Park Heights Avenue in Baltimore to study privately with a renowned cantor. Through those studies, my father began to integrate new prayers into our shul and even into our home.

One of those was Birkat HaYeladim (The Children’s Blessing) on Shabbat. Here is how it played out on Friday night: my mother would light our family heirloom candlesticks at our kitchen table, wave her hands a few times, cover her eyes and recite the blessing. Immediately after, my father would nudge me and my sister forward, place his hands squarely on our keppes (heads), take a deep breath, and chant the Priestly Blessing with all his might, “Yivarekhah Adonai v’Yishmerekhah…” May God bless you and keep you!” Then, he would chant the Kiddush (blessing over the wine) in a small, matching silver cup.

Even though there were many times it was just us four standing beside the lit candles, my dad would blast the prayer with so much kavannah (spiritual intention), I sometimes thought the windows would blow out!

When I was young, I tended to be more dutiful. If I hesitated to move my head away from my father’s hand, my mother would give me a look that sent the message loud and clear that I had better get in place. As I grew, I found the practice to be one half-step below unbearable. At 16, I was a head taller than my father. It felt so silly to stand there while he reached up to give me this loud blessing. I tried to keep my annoyance in check, lest I face the consequences of a grounding, but I also rolled my eyes so hard it hurt.

Until my wedding.

I will never forget the last time my father blessed me. It was at the bedecken (veiling ceremony), just before the huppah (wedding canopy), when Jenny and I were surrounded by all of our friends and family. While the crowd sang a niggun (wordless melody), there were a few moments for our parents to give us some final, whispered words of wisdom. My mother couldn’t speak; her tears said it all. My father put his hand on my head and belted out the Priestly Blessing like when I was a child. I cried so hard I could barely breathe.

Today, when Rabbi Jenny and I bless our kids around our Shabbat candles, I sometimes think back to my childhood. There are times when our kinder (children) are more willing to receive their blessings and sometimes less so. There are times when this moment comes so naturally after a week of loving connection and other times when this blessing comes to repair a hard moment that might have happened just a few minutes before.

But, no matter what, I place my hands on each of our children’s heads, hold them close and, in a slight change from my father, recite the blessing in a hushed tone in their ears. I always finish it with a kiss and a deep-hearted wish that they have a “Shabbat Shalom.” May they have shalom for these precious 25 hours of Shabbat and just as important — shalom, please God, in their hearts over a lifetime.

In a way, this blessing sums up all that Shabbat has meant to the Jewish people for millennia. It’s our “secret sauce” where tradition and Torah meet spirituality, love, and holding people you cherish close. A practice that forces us to take the time out of our busy lives to slow down, breathe, and remember what is really most important.

I can admit that I didn’t always want to receive my father’s blessing. And I know that my kids don’t always want to receive my blessing either. But here’s what I know for sure: Shabbat creates the space for the Jewish people to give and receive blessings. Not speaking in the third person, but directly, face to face, with a touch on the cheek, infused with love, and with the Presence of the Holy One hovering nearby.

The great Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am once said, “More than the Jewish people has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”

Amen to that. One blessing at a time.

Thu, July 18 2024 12 Tammuz 5784