Think bar mitzvah and the imagination conjures up a gourmet’s fantasy of parties and banquets. Hardly any bar mitzvah is celebrated without its accompanying festive meal.
But why is this so? Is not a bar mitzvah a religious celebration? As such, should it not be celebrated with special attention to religious concerns? Families should perhaps rededicate themselves to spiritual values implemented by Torah sessions or charitable programs. Is not the banquet antithetical to the spirit of the occasion? It almost appears as if it was designed by caterers rather than by rabbis. The party is not an innovation of modern life, but rooted in our tradition and cited by ancient authoritative sages as a significant celebration of the bar mitzvah.
The Talmud notes that Rabbi Yosef, who was blind, was troubled as to whether a person in such a condition was obliged to observe mitzvot. He said, “Now that I have heard Rabbi Hanina’s dictum that he who is commanded and fulfills the command is greater than he who fulfills it though not commanded, if anyone should tell me that the halacha does not agree with Rabbi Yehuda (who ruled that the blind are exempt from mitzvot), I would make a yom tov for the rabbis” (Kiddushin 31a). Rashi interprets the latter phrase to mean a banquet.
Rabbi Shlomo Luria (1510-1574) derives from this the general rule that an initial obligation to observe mitzvot crystallises a party celebration. Rabbi Yosef expressed a desire to have a banquet to celebrate his obligation to observe mitzvot. So too should transpire at a bar mitzvah. The 13th birth date of a boy is a form of status transformation. The bar mitzvah is the date wherein the boy assumes obligations to perform mitzvot in his own right. Accordingly, the party celebrates this new obligation comparable to Rabbi Yosef’s declaration.
This citation is difficult to comprehend. Logic suggests just the opposite position. Since Shavuot commemorates Torah, on that day all physical enjoyment should be secondary to Torah. Jews should devote the entire holiday to Torah scholarship. Parties and banquets should have no place on a day of Torah. Religious aestheticism should prevail. “Families should perhaps rededicate themselves to spiritual values implemented by Torah sessions or charitable programs.”
The meaning, perhaps, is that Torah was not given to angels, but rather to human beings; to people with frailties and limitations. Torah does not mandate a monastic lifestyle. Life is to be appreciated, enjoyed, but sanctified. The physical pleasures are to be utilised to enhance life itself. Eat — but make a blessing to manifest an appreciation of God’s gift. The physical and spiritual spheres are to be integrated into a meaningful whole.
The day commemorating the gift of Torah necessitates a recognition of the human quality of its essence. How better to do so than by participating in a party? The bar mitzvah banquet is the concrete example of this concept. Each bar mitzvah boy is celebrating receipt of his personal Torah. As such, he commemorates the event with a festive meal, just as all Jews so observe on Shavuot.
So let us enjoy the parties, but let us at least recognise that our goal is to uplift the material world rather than subordinate all values to the pleasure of the moment.