Joseph’s two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, are familiar names because (a) they each became the forefather of a tribe when Jacob divided the tribe of Joseph into two tribes, and (b) because of the Friday night blessing given to the son(s) of the household: “May God make you like Ephraim and like Menashe” (Genesis 48:20). While not much can be learned about Menashe and Ephraim as individuals from the narratives in the Book of Genesis, the Oral Torah provides some fascinating details.
Joseph named his eldest son Menashe, declaring “For God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house (Genesis 41:51). When he named Ephraim, he praised God saying, “ He ‘[God] has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction”(ibid 41:52).
According to the Midrash, Menashe became Joseph’s right-hand man. Not only did Menashe act as an interpreter for Joseph (Genesis Rabbah 91:8), but he was also the messenger when Joseph sent after his brothers to accuse Benjamin (falsely) of stealing Joseph’s favorite cup” (ibid 84:20).
Ephraim, on the other hand, is presented in the Midrash as a man who shared his grandfather’s temperament – quiet and studious. According to the Midrash Tanchuma (Vayachi 6), it was Ephraim who brought Joseph word of Jacob’s illness because he regularly studied with Jacob.
The only real mention in the Torah of these brothers is when Jacob blesses them and places his right hand on Ephraim the younger rather than Menashe the elder. Jacob saw an important spiritual strength in Ephraim, a fact emphasized by another Midrash:
Ephraim was crowned by the patriarch Jacob as he was about to depart this world: [Jacob] said to him, “Ephraim, whoever is the head of a tribe, the head of an academy, the finest and the best of my children [descendants], shall be called by your name [i.e. he shall be called an Ephrathite], as it states [in Jeremiah 31:19], ‘My precious son Ephraim’” (Leviticus Rabbah 2:3).