Coming of age for a Jew, which happens automatically at age 13 for a boy and 12 for a girl, is termed bar and bat mitzvah, that is, obligated to perform the Jewish mitzvot (commandments). A ceremony marking the first performance of mitzvot such as being called up to the Torah to say the blessings (known as “getting an aliyah“) began to make sense only in the Middle Ages. Earlier, the age of majority had little practical meaning because minors were “permitted” (though not “obligated”) to perform many rituals that were later reserved only for boys who had reached the age of bar mitzvah.
The history of the bar mitzvah dates back to a fifth-century rabbinic text references a blessing (still part of a traditional bar mitzvah) recited by the father thanking God for freeing him from responsibility for the deeds of his child, who is now accountable for his own actions. A 14th-century text mentions a father reciting this blessing in a synagogue when his son has his first aliyah. By the 17th century, boys celebrating this coming of age were also reading from the Torah, chanting the weekly prophetic portion, leading services, and delivering learned talks.
Religious reformers of 19th-century Europe, uncomfortable with the ritual focus of the bar mitzvah, developed the confirmation ceremony, which celebrated the acquisition of the principles of Jewish faith by older teens. The confirmation ceremony quickly included girls as well as boys and spread to Reform and later Conservative congregations in the United States.
The bat mitzvah celebration made a late appearance in the United States with the bat mitzvah of Judith Kaplan in 1922. In the last half century, the bat mitzvah has been widely observed in liberal congregations, but has developed more slowly among traditional Jews, because women are not legally obligated by Jewish law to perform public mitzvot.
In the last three decades, an adult bar/bat mitzvah ceremony has developed that is not a coming of age, but rather an affirmation of Jewish identity for Jews who did not have bar/bat mitzvahs as children.
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