Many people are surprised to find out that “becoming bar/bat mitzvah” happens automatically when a Jewish boy reaches the age of 13 and or a girl 12. The ceremony that today occupies center stage is actually a historical afterthought, with evidence of observance only from sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries. Because the ceremony marks reaching the age of majority, many traditional Jews observe it on the Sabbath immediately following the child’s birthday.
For the rabbis, the significance of this life-changing moment lay in the child’s new stage of physical, intellectual, and moral development. They saw 12 and 13 as the ages at which girls and boys, respectively, were no longer entirely subject to impulse, but were beginning to develop a conscience. The term bar/bat mitzvah–which means “obligated to perform the Jewish mitzvot (commandments)”–reflects the child’s newfound capabilities and responsibilities.
Although the ceremony that communally affirms the child’s coming of age is medieval in origin, there is evidence in rabbinic literature that the father may have recited a blessing when the child reached the age of majority. This blessing, called baruch she’p’tarani, thanks God for freeing the father from responsibility for the child’s behavior, signaling a transition of control and hence responsibility from parent to child
Development of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah
The relatively late development of the bar mitzvah ceremony probably derives from changes in communal customs regarding what ritual activities a child was allowed to perform. According to the Talmud, which was completed around the sixth century CE, boys were permitted to perform many ritual acts, for example, donning tefillin (phylacteries), whenever they had developed the necessary expertise and were able to understand the ritual’s significance. Later this window of opportunity closed, and children were not allowed to perform these rituals until they had reached the age of majority. At this point, a ceremony celebrating the first performance of these rituals began to make sense.
The bat mitzvah ceremony observed in the liberal movements came much later. It grew out of a broader societal focus on women’s rights, with the first American bat mitzvah occurring in 1922. The concept of a bat mitzvah ceremony within traditional Judaism is far more recent. Because Jewish law limits a woman’s religious responsibilities primarily to commandments that are not time-bound (meaning, not required to be performed at a particular time), a woman’s Jewish activity occurred primarily within the private, familial realm rather than the public, communal one. Because women were not required to perform any overt and visible mitzvot as were men, a ceremony made little sense. Yet in the late 20th century, as observant women have become more Judaically educated, they too are pressing to create meaningful rituals for bat mitzvah.
Because the rabbis specified no ritual requirements for the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, except for the parental blessing, the roles played by the bar/bat mitzvah at the service and even the timing of the service itself can vary widely. The typical bar/bat mitzvah takes place during the Sabbath morning service, where the child is called up to say the blessings over the Torah–his or her first aliyah. Children may read from the Torah; chant the haftarah, the weekly prophetic portion; lead some or all of the congregational service; and offer a personal interpretation of the weekly Torah portion, called a d’var Torah. The bar/bat mitzvah takes on similar roles when the ceremony occurs on a holiday, on Rosh Chodesh–the first day of the new Hebrew month, on a Monday or Thursday morning, or on a Sabbath afternoon. The Torah is not read on Friday nights and would be read by observant girls only at a women’s prayer service.
A Time of Change
The year of intensive preparation that precedes the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony itself signals a change in the relationship and “balance of power” between the parent and child along with the immense changes in the child’s own physical and intellectual persona. On a religious level these changes are acknowledged by the baruch she’p’tarani blessing. On a psychological level, it is the parents who had better acknowledge them or beware! This period is one of intense negotiation, requiring new models of decision making as well as the adoption of new familial roles. When a child misses this rite of passage, he or she certainly is still bar mitzvah, but the chance is seemingly gone for a spiritual coming of age that mirrors the physical, intellectual, and emotional milestones of the new teenager.
And what of converts who want to affirm their attachments to Judaism by devoting extra time to Jewish learning and those who came late to religious observance? In the last 30 years or so, a solution has developed–a belated celebration called adult bar/bat mitzvah. Small groups of adults join together in synagogue-based classes for one to two years, studying Jewish history, theology, texts, and prayer, and learning to read Hebrew and to chant Torah and haftarah. The process of study, which creates a strong sense of community among the participants and often carries over into increased synagogue involvement, culminates in an adult bar/bat mitzvah ceremony where adults publicly reclaim their spiritual heritage.
Pronounced: baht MITZ-vuh, also bahs MITZ-vuh and baht meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish rite of passage for a girl, observed at age 12 or 13.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.