Jacob Adopts Ephraim and Manasseh

Va-y'chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26

D'Var Torah By: Marcus L. Burstein

Focal Point

  • Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon. But progeny born to you after them shall be yours; they shall be recorded instead of their brothers in their inheritance. (Genesis 48:5-6)

  • Noticing Joseph's sons, Israel asked, "Who are these?" And Joseph said to his father, "They are my sons, whom God has given me here." "Bring them up to me," he said, "that I may bless them." Now Israel's eyes were dim with age; he could not see. So [Joseph] brought them close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, "I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well." Joseph then removed them from his knees, and bowed low with his face to the ground. (Genesis 48:8-12)

D'var Torah

In Va-y'chi, the last parashah of Genesis, we read about the blessings that Jacob gives to his sons and grandsons before his death. The parashah begins with Jacob making Joseph swear that he will bury Jacob's body in the Cave of the Machpelah in Canaan. Soon afterwards, Joseph knows that his father's days are numbered, so he visits Jacob with his sons Manasseh and Ephraim, and Jacob blesses his grandsons. After this visit, Jacob then speaks words of blessing and rebuke to each of his sons. Jacob dies, and Genesis concludes with Joseph's death in Egypt.

In this Torah portion, we also read about the adoption of Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, by their grandfather, Jacob. At first, Jacob states that Ephraim and Manasseh will be to him like his own sons (Genesis 48:5). Then further on, we read of the biblical practice of placing the adoptee on the new parent's knees (Genesis 48:12).

Jacob's adoption of his grandsons is not a new concept in the Torah; in fact, it is mentioned numerous times in Genesis. Eliezer is named heir to Abraham's fortune in Genesis 15:2-3, Sarah obtains a son through her maidservant Hagar (Genesis 16:2), and Rachel raises Dan and Naphtali as her own through Bilhah (Genesis 30:3-8). Jacob himself is adopted by his father-in-law, Laban, in Genesis 29-31. Other books of the Torah and the Bible contain additional examples, with the adoption of Moses by Pharaoh's daughter as the most prominent example.

Rashi's comments on Jacob's adopting of Ephraim and Manasseh in Genesis 48:5 refer to the share in the Land of Israel that each one will receive: They are similar to the shares that Jacob's own sons will inherit. In fact, this adoption is the reason that Ephraim and Manasseh are counted among the twelve tribes of Israel, but Joseph is not (nor is Levi). Although Joseph wants his father to bless his children, it's unlikely he has any idea that his father would also give them equal status with his own sons. Joseph may be so moved by this that he, in turn, chooses to adopt his own grandsons later on in the parashah. In Genesis 50:23 we read, "Joseph lived to see children of the third generation of Ephraim; the children of Machir son of Manasseh were likewise born upon Joseph's knees." Plaut explains this verse: "Either to indicate Joseph's long life, which saw great-grandchildren, or the record of an adoption. Joseph may have adopted Machir as his son as Jacob adopted Ephraim and Manasseh" (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: UAHC Press, 1981], p. 316).

Rabbi Norman Cohen emphasizes the play of the Hebrew words in relation to the adoption. Jacob "placed them on his knees (birkav) and blessed them (Jacob gave them his berakhah) . . . " (Norman J. Cohen, Self, Struggle and Change [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996], p. 183). The connection of the Hebrew words "knee" and "bless" is one of the reasons some Jews bow while saying bar'chu, the plural imperative form of "to bless," or baruch, "the singular imperative form of "to bless," in some of our prayers.

Although adoption has a long history in the Jewish religion, it was not until recently that adoption has been officially and legally recognized. According to Michael Gold, "Jewish law does not recognize adoption per se. It is true that the Talmud does say, 'Whoever raises an orphan in his home, scripture considers him as if he gave birth to the child' (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 19b). Yet the child's biological identity can never be replaced" (Michael Gold, And Hannah Wept: Infertility, Adoption, and the Jewish Couple [New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1988], p. 152). Gold goes on to state, "Throughout the Bible we find cases of a child being born to one set of parents and raised by another, a de facto adoption. Yet adoption de jure, adoption as a legal institution, is unknown to Jewish law. Only in modern Israel have rabbinic authorities been forced to establish procedures for the adoption of children" (ibid., p. 154). It was not until 1960 that adoption became legal in Israel, when rabbinic authorities had to establish procedures for the adoption of children.

Our own congregations are filled with adopted children, many originally from other lands, cultures, and races. Cross-cultural and cross-racial adoptions have been a part of our history from biblical times. As our Jewish community continues to welcome many Jews of different backgrounds into our congregations, we should remember that our ancestors provided positive role models for informal and formal adoption into Judaism. Jews of all races, upbringings, and backgrounds continue to enrich our community, just as they have done for thousands of years.

By the Way

  • The American Jewish community is now more diverse than ever. Of America's 6.0-6.5 million Jews, an estimated 300,000-400,000 are Jews of color, including Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and mixed-race Americans (not counting Sephardim). . . . According to our study, diverse Jews are: 1) multicultural Jews by heritage; 2) children of interracial Jewish couples; 3) spouses and partners of Jews who have converted or are interested in Judaism; 4) religious seekers who choose Judaism; and 5) children of color who have been adopted by Jewish families. (Gary Tobin and Diane Kaufmann Tobin, "Diversity Strengthens Us,"Reform Judaism 32, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 66)

  • You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

  • This emphasis upon the treatment of aliens or foreigners-those who are new to a community or society-is not unusual within the Torah. Early Jewish tradition emphasizes the pain of the outsider and seeks solutions for it. Commandments calling for sensitivity and justice for the ger are found in thirty-six different places within the Torah, more than the mention of any other mitzvah. (Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, vol. 2, Exodus and Leviticus [New York: UAHC Press, 1991], p. 56)

Your Guide

  1. Although we may not legally or formally adopt the children of a relative or friend, what are some of the ways that we provide for the children of others as we do for own?

  2. How do you welcome those born in other cultures into your congregation and your family's life?

  3. How might some Jews feel when they hear, "You don't look Jewish?"

Rabbi Marcus L. Burstein, D. Min., is the rabbi of Jewish Family Congregation in South Salem, NY.

Reference Materials

Va-y’chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 302–316; Revised Edition, pp. 304–322; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 281–304