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The following article discusses the development of the short blessing that fathers traditionally recited when their sons reached the age of bar mitzvah. The blessing is recited today in traditionalist and some liberal synagogues, though many other liberal communities have eliminated it. In those communities that have retained it and in which girls have equivalent ceremonies to boys, parents recite the blessing for their daughters as well. Reprinted with permission from Life Cycles in Jewish and Christian Worship (The University of Notre Dame Press).
While the term “bar mitzvah” occurs in the Talmud to describe one who is subject to the commandments, early rabbinic literature provides no reference to an occasion or rite under that name. However, there is some suggestion that the 13th birthday did not pass unnoticed, for it was marked by a blessing.
“Rabbi Phinehas said in Rabbi Levi’s name: They [Jacob and Esau] were like a myrtle and a wild rose-bush growing side by side; when they reached the age of maturity, one displayed its fragrance, and the other grew its thorns. So for 13 years both went to school. But after turning 13, one went to the study hall and the other to idolatrous shrines. Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Simeon said: A man is responsible for his son until the age of 13: thereafter he must say, ‘Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this boy'” (Genesis Rabbah 63:10).
We have therefore an early and distinct reference, in a midrash collection usually dated no later than the fifth century, to a blessing that was associated with a boy’s coming of age. However there is no evidence that actual recitation of this blessing ever occurred, at least not in any public forum whence it would have received some form of official recognition in legal literature that customarily records such things as obligatory. No further reference to this blessing can be found until the 14th century when Aaron ben Jacob Hakohen of Provence wrote:
“It is written in Genesis Rabbah…that he whose son reaches the age of 13 must say the blessing, ‘Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this boy.’ There are those who say it the first time that the boy receives his aliyah to read the Torah. The [eighth-century] Gaon Rabbi Yehudai rose in the synagogue and said this blessing the first time that his son read the Torah.”
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