Were Ephraim and Menasheh role models?

December 21, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. I heard that the lyrical poem Nishmat (recited on Shabbat and festivals) was authored by Peter, the leader of the Apostles. Could this be true?

A. Shabbat and the festivals have a longer Shacharit service than weekdays, and the number of psalms we read is expanded on Shabbat and chagim.

On all occasions the “Pesukei DeZimra” (passages of song – i.e. psalms) conclude with Psalm 150, with its call to the whole world, “Kol HaNeshamah Tehallel Y-ah” – “Let all breath praise the Lord”.

On Shabbat and festivals, the words and theme are continued with “Nishmat Kol Chai”, which is known as “Birkat HaShir”, the Song Benediction. It avers that however much we try (“even if our mouths were full of song”), the Creator is beyond all human praise.

Nishmat has three parts, which say:
·  There is only one God (“We have no King but You”).
·  His greatness is beyond human praise.
·  He has cared for His people throughout their history.

The authorship of the passage is controversial. There is a medieval legend that the first section is by one of the most “Jewish” of Jesus’ supporters, Simon Peter, who is thought to have been disconcerted by the way the early Christians made compromises with Jewish monotheism.

It is true that Simon Peter was reluctant to abandon Jewish belief and practice, but his insistence on retaining Jewishness is probably exaggerated.

The claim that he wrote part of Nishmat is rejected by Rashi (Machzor Vitry, p. 282), who argues that the real author is Shimon ben Shetach and that the legend confused two Simons. Rashi’s grandson Rabbenu Tam still believes that this Simon was a Jewish liturgical poet and wrote a Yom Kippur hymn, “Etein Tehillah” (“I will utter praise”).

Some liturgists think that Simon Peter also wrote the benediction “Ahavah Rabbah” (“You loved us with exceeding love”) which precedes the morning Shema, but this too is highly improbable.

Some midrashic passages suggest that (like some other early Christians) Simon Peter hovered between Judaism and Christianity and ended up as a Jew who attempted to prevent Christians from changing Jewish belief and practice. This is one of a number of stories of apostates (even a pope) who left Christianity and returned to Judaism.


Q. I am puzzled by the blessing, “God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh”. Were they such role models?

A. Ephraim and Menasheh were the grandsons of Jacob. He foresaw that his descendants would bless their children in this way (Gen. 48:20).

The Hertz Chumash praises them as Jews who would not barter their heritage for status or power.

However, the text (verse 5) gives a different explanation, that Jacob regarded these two as his own sons: “They will be to me like Reuben and Simeon”.

In this sense, the parental blessing prays that every Jewish child will fulfil their potential to become as important in history as the original twelve sons of the patriarch.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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