Lets take a look at another Hebrew scene, this time from the old testament. Though another warm family event, also with strong religious overtones, this piece manifests a departure from the social cohesion demonstrated in “The Jewish Bride” (where I should have mentioned the ring fingers crossing). Namely, here the woman is being excluded from the ritual; those same religious overtones that served to unify in the marriage, divide in the blessing. The mother stands aloof and, though evidently touched and worried, isn’t allowed into the center of events. I don’t think that Rembrandt intended to pass social critique, he merely illustrated the biblical lines in the way he envisioned them — but that makes the separation only the more obvious, and almost frustrating: personally, it derails me, as a modern beholder, from the main theme, and it imposes itself as a competing one. Even more frustrating is the fact that nothing has really changed in ultra-orthodox Jewish circles since Jacob, or even since Rembrandt.
The mother’s figure stands in conflict with her facial expression. Her eyes speak eloquently of the deepest love and concern, of awareness of the significance of the moment, yet she cannot allow herself to even look into the direction of her sons, not to say anything of touching (as, for instance, does Joseph, as he guides Jacob’s hand). This is an unnatural, and even cruel removal, and her body, stiff and with hands clasped in compliance contradicts the profound tenderness that her countenance and head inclination show. The lack of actual physical contact between the woman and her offspring is the more clear considering her proximity to the children. All this is not incidental: the process of blessing involves placing the palm on the receiver’s head, and any touching would indicate some sort of involvement, which was strictly prohibited for females. The division of sexes and the resulting tension threaten to redirect sympathy towards the mother, at the expense of the family as a whole.
But the family as a single unit still dominates the scene. There are three generations, and the act of blessing ensures the spiritual continuation, which is no less important than the genetic one. The intimacy of the event is emphasized by the screen visible in the upper corners — and is presumably transformed into secrecy. Light originates from the left and above, behind Jacob’s back, and brings to mind a divine and spiritual illumination; since the source is not visible, one may assume that these faces shine from some kind of inner source. Interesting is Rembrandt’s choice of apparel for his models: Joseph wears a turban, a head gear usually assigned to exotic eastern characters from the biblical past; I can’t determine whether the mother’s sophisticated head gear is similarly ancient. The furs on Jacob’s side allude to his regal status as the forefather of the Judeo-Christian tradition.