Festival Prayers: Birchat Kohanim I
“Joseph took the two of them, Ephraim with his right hand, to Israel’s left, and Menashe with his left, to Israel’s right, and he drew close to him. But Israel extended his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head though he was the younger and his left hand on Menashe’s head. He maneuvered Sikel his hands, for Menashe was the firstborn (Genesis 48:13–14).”
Joseph presented his sons to his father in the proper order. Jacob realized that this was the order in which Joseph would place his sons before him. This is why he crossed his arms to place his right hand on the head of Ephraim and his left hand on the head of Menashe. He possessed sufficient Divine Inspiration to foresee that historically Ephraim would be of greater significance than his older brother.
According to Rabbeinu Chananel, Jacob did not actually cross his arms but he placed his hands one on top of the other. What the Rabbi meant was that Jacob did not rearrange the position of the boys but the position of his hands. This does not seem right. We do not need Rabbeinu Chananel to tell us this as the Torah had already made it clear that the boys remained in their respective positions but that Jacob crossed his hands!
The correct interpretation of Rabbeinu Chananel appears to be that the words, “he rearranged his hands,” mean that relative to Joseph he rearranged his hands. When the Torah said, “he placed his right hand on the head of Ephraim,” the meaning is that he rearranged the boys and placed them so that the younger was opposite his right hand. He also rearranged the position of the older son so that he stood opposite Jacob’s left hand. He did not rearrange his own hands at all. All he did was to rearrange the position of the boys.
This is the correct meaning of the words, “Sikel, he rearranged his hands,” he rearranged them differently from the way Joseph had arranged them.
The blessing took effect as a result of Jacob placing his hands firmly on the heads of the boys.
We find something similar in Numbers 27:23 where Moses placed his hands on Joshua and proceeded to bless him, making him his successor. The act of placing one’s hands on the person one blesses is designed to facilitate the transfer of the Holy Spirit possessed by the one conferring the blessing to the recipient of the blessing.
When the Sages ordained someone they also literally placed their hands on the head of the person they were ordaining. In the case of the Kohanim blessing the people this was physically impossible. Instead, the Kohen spreads his hands heavenwards in a gesture commanding God’s blessing on all those present.
This is the deeper meaning of the word, “Sikel,” being derived from the word, “Seichel,” or intelligence and wisdom. The 10 fingers are to be the instrument which draws down blessings from its celestial source. (Rabbeinu Bachya; Genesis 48:13)