Bar Mitzvah is the Hebrew term for ‘son of the commandment’. It refers to the time from which a Jewish male is obliged to fulfil all the commandments prescribed to Jews and accept his religious responsibilities as an adult. The bar mitzvah is a momentous occasion in the life of every Jewish boy. It is a coming of age that has its roots in the sixth century, and remains one of the great milestones in Jewish life.
A Jewish boy fulfils the obligations of bar mitzvah at the age of 13. On a designated day following his 13th birthday he is called upon to read a section of the Torah for the first time. As a man responsible for himself, he is now permitted to attend synagogue on his own and form part of a minyan, the group of ten or more men required to conduct a service. Before Bar Mitzvah age, the boy was not considered accountable for any religious short-comings on his part (rather, his father was considered to be responsible for his conduct), but from Bar Mitzvah onwards the boy is considered accountable for his own actions.
Two commandments have become associated with Bar Mitzvah. First and foremost is the privilege of being called to the Torah for the first time, accompanied by the congregation and reciting the prayer of thanking God. The other is the first act of binding of tefillin (phylacteries) on the head and round the arm during the morning prayers.
It should be noted that a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah at 13 years of age (that is, his 13th birthday according to the Hebrew calendar) irrespective of whether or not he has a ceremony or party to celebrate the event. The ceremony – which involves the boy being called to read from the Torah for the first time – is merely a public recognition of that which has already come to pass – the boy has reached an age where he may participate fully in the religious life of the community.
Historical and modern traditions
Studies have shown that the Bar Mitzvah ritual existed as early as the sixth century in Palestine. The tradition became more elaborate in the European Middle Ages, when the 13-year-old boy was expected to deliver a lecture on a difficult point in rabbinical learning. This would most often take place in the home, amid a rich and festive banquet.
Today in Western countries the Bar Mitzvah is celebrated by the boy reading a section from the Torah, generally the last section of the portion of the week (Maftir). Afterwards he chants a selection from the prophets (Haftarah). The ceremony generally takes place in the synagogue and most frequently on the Sabbath. However, it may take place on any other day of the week when the Torah is read (a Monday, Thursday, New Moon (Rosh Chodesh) or other occasion such as Chanukah).
After the Bar Mitzvah boy has been called up to read from the Torah, his father joins him on the altar to say a prayer. This prayer officially releases the father from his responsibility towards his son in matters pertaining to his religious life. This is called Baruch Sheptarani. The recitation of this prayer is considered to be an occasion of great joy in the father’s life.
While the Bar Mitzvah today is celebrated in much the same way as in ancient times, it is unfortunately now often hyped up with elaborate festivities. Celebrations are often continued into the night or the next day at a special dinner with family and friends.
The ritual of the Bar Mitzvah has undergone many transformations throughout the centuries. People today rarely stop to bear in mind its original meaning: a beautiful and simple celebration marking the entry of a boy into Jewish adulthood.
Bat Mitzvah Overview
Bat Mitzvah is the Hebrew term for ‘daughter of the commandment’. According to Jewish law, a girl reaches the age of bat mitzvah at 12 and from this time she is obliged to fulfil all the commandments prescribed to Jews and accept her religious responsibilities as an adult. From this time she is expected to fulfil the commandments pertaining to Jewish women, including lighting Shabbat candles and fasting on fast days.
Becoming ‘bat mitzvah’ is automatic and age-related, so even without having a formal celebration of the event, a Jewish girl can pray privately as an adult. She is not required by Orthodox tradition to attend synagogue.
Historical and modern traditions
Unlike the Bar Mitzvah, the equivalent ceremony for boys, the Bat Mitzvah is not mentioned in the Bible. While the ceremony of Bar Mitzvah dates back to the sixth century, the observance of Bat Mitzvah was only introduced in 1922 by the Reconstructionist movement in the United States.
The first public Bat Mitzvah ceremony was for Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, the daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement. Since then, other Jewish movements have adopted the ceremony.
Among Orthodox congregations Bat Mitzvah ceremonies tended to be group events held annually and involving all girls who had recently turned 12 years of age; the ceremony would be something like a concert with the girls sang songs of a religious nature and recited pertinent prose and poetry. However, recently there has been a trend away from group ceremonies to individual ceremonies with the girl delivering a D’var Torah (speech on a religious topic, usually related to that week’s Torah reading) to the congregation.
Although a Bat Mitzvah ceremony is not required by Jewish law, it is used to recognise a Jewish girl as a woman and to define her as such in her community. It is generally followed by a private family celebration, where the girl has a chance to address her family and friends personally at her new stage of life.
Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews today consider the Bat Mitzvah in much the same light as the Bar Mitzvah. It is common for girls in these congregations to be called to read from the Torah in their synagogues.
The ritual of the Bat Mitzvah has been evolving since its inception. It remains an issue of contention among the various movements in Judaism, although there can be no doubt that its importance is growing as the role of Jewish women changes. People today should bear in mind the intended meaning of Bat Mitzvah: a beautiful celebration marking the entry of a girl into Jewish adulthood.