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Although the Talmud uses the term bar mitzvah to signify a boy’s coming of age, the only accompanying ritual was a blessing pronounced by the father thanking God for ending his responsibility for his son’s observance of the mitzvot (commandments). Yet the talmudic understanding of majority points more to the child’s new intellectual and moral capabilities than to his new ritual responsibilities. In fact, even minors were permitted to perform many public mitzvot such as being called up to the Torah for an aliyah (reciting the blessings on the Torah) or wearing tefillin (phylacteries) as soon as they were capable of performing them with understanding.
Only later, in the Middle Ages, when the minor was generally not permitted to perform these mitzvot, did it make sense to celebrate their first public observance. By the 14th century, sources mention a boy being called up to the Torah for the first time on the Sabbath coinciding with or following his 13th birthday. By the 17th century, boys were also reading Torah and delivering talks, often on talmudic learning, at an afternoon seudat mitzvah (ritual meal). Today the speech, usually a commentary on the weekly Torah portion, generally takes place during the morning service.
The ritual focus of the bar mitzvah was a source of discomfort to religious reformers in 19th-century Europe. They promoted an additional ceremony (influenced by the Christian catechism) called confirmation, which focused on knowledge of the principles of the Jewish faith. Although first conceived for boys only, girls were included after about the first decade. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a leader of Reform Judaism in America, introduced confirmation in the United States in 1846 in Albany, New York.
Originally linked to home and school, the ceremony quickly moved to the synagogue and found a home in the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. Shavuot worked well, due both to its timing at the end of the secular school year and its thematic connection with the Torah, the story of the Jewish people and its relationship with God. To distinguish confirmation from bar mitzvah, its supporters emphasized its focus on doctrine rather than ritual, its coeducational scope, and its occurrence at age 16 or 17 (serving, thereby, to prolong the child’s Jewish education).
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