November 20, 2018

The Blessing of the Child & the Binding of Isaac

“The ritual of Jewish parents blessing their children is indeed moving, but it is easily misconstrued. Properly understood, it stresses first and foremost not the bond between parent and child, but rather between the child and God. The standard form of showing love to our children is through an embrace: The act is possessive in nature, drawing them close to us. To bless our children by extending our hands is the opposite; rather than draw them close, we set them apart, indicating that they belong to someone other than ourselves. In the Bible, the one ritual comparable to the Jewish act of blessing is sacrificial in context. The worshipper in the Temple placed his hands on an animal’s head before the ritual occurred, thereby renouncing his own claim to the offering and dedicating it to God. In a similar sense, to place one’s hands on a child is to recall the Temple and consecrate the child to divine service.

The parallel between biblical blessing and sacrifice is rarely considered. Few scriptural stories are as shocking as that known as the Sacrifice of Isaac, known to Jews as the Akeidah (Binding). The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah is dominated by the Bible’s most haunting words: “Take thy son, thy only son.” But the Akeidah is, in a sense, re-created every Friday evening in many Jewish homes all over the world, where parents place their hands on their children’s heads, as their ancestors did over offerings in Jerusalem millennia ago.

Can this be so? Have Jews, for generations untold, placed the reenactment of one of the most petrifying tales about parent and child at the heart of their most sacred familial experiences? They have indeed. In the 1950s, in a spirit similar to Leach’s, a Roman Catholic priest was intrigued by a Jewish ritual involving parents and children: the pidyon ha-ben, in which the father of a firstborn son, a month following the baby’s birth, presents the child to a kohen, a descendant of Aaron. The parent then redeems the child by giving several silver coins to the kohen, and the child is returned to him. The priest wrote to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik inquiring about the ritual. The Rav responded by linking Jewish parenthood to the agonizing Abrahamic tale.”

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