Author Archives: Dr. Debra R. Blank

Dr. Debra R. Blank

About Dr. Debra R. Blank

Dr. Debra R. Blank teaches liturgy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was ordained in 1984.

History of Confirmation

Jewish worship began to be fundamentally altered in the 19th century by religious reforms. While these innovations originated and proliferated primarily in Germany, they also affected Jews in that century who lived as far away as Russia and North America. Confirmation was one of the items on the list of reforms. 

Confirmation Posed as Replacement for Bar Mitzvah

Reformers, scrutinizing the rite of bar mitzvah, expressed a preference for a confirmation ceremony at which the 13-year-old would answer rehearsed questions about the tenets of Jewish faith. The bar mitzvah boy could at best display ability to read from the Torah and give a discourse; the confirmand could show he knew the religious principles of his faith.

Different justifications have been advanced for confirmation. According to one view, for instance, the bar mitzvah ceremony had simply lost its prominence among some Jews. According to another, people wished to increase the participation of Jewish women in the community. As girls were educated more and more like boys in the secular world, people felt the need for comparable Jewish education.

Whatever the reason, the process of confirmation was based on the model of Christian catechism, whereby after a period of study, the confirmand would answer questions that displayed a comprehension of Jewish religious principles. The culmination of the course of study indicated that the adolescent was now sufficiently responsible to graduate to adult status. The content of the ceremony and preparation for it varied widely (and still do), but it was (and in some places, still remains) characterized by some formal confession of faith or statement of principles, following a period of study.

Development of the Confirmation Ceremony

Criticism of the ceremony of confirmation focused, of course, on its Christian roots. The critics argued that practice, not profession of doctrine, distinguished a Jew. Supporters of confirmation pointed out that unlike bar mitzvah, this ceremony included girls. However, there is no evidence of girls being confirmed until 1814 in Berlin, whereas the earliest evidence for confirmation dates from 1803 in Dessau. Soon thereafter, girls seem to have been included in the ceremony without exception, not only in Germany, but in Denmark, Russia, and England. The leading American Reform rabbi of the 19th century, Isaac Mayer Wise, introduced confirmation to the United States in 1846 while serving in Albany, New York. By the latter 1800s, confirmation had thus become a common practice among the Jews of North America and Europe.

The Parents’ Blessing: Baruch She-p’tarani

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.

parents blessing child bat bar mitzvah father daughter“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.”

The Age Requirement for Bar/Bat Mitzvah

At the age of majority, Jewish boys and girls take on the obligations of the mitzvot, or commandments. In traditional Judaism, men and women have different, though overlapping, sets of obligations. With some exceptions, women generally are not obligated to perform time-bound commandments, like listening to the shofar or saying the Shema. Men, however, were obligated to perform all of the time-bound commandments. As a result, the age of majority historically had different connotations for boys and girls. Whereas the obligations taken on by a young man at bar mitzvah were public and visible, a young woman’s fell mostly in the more private realm of the "thou shalt nots." Today, as women in the liberal movements have taken on obligations that were traditionally reserved only for men, the age of majority has come to have a more public meaning for girls: at age 12 (or 13 in many liberal synagogues) they can be part of a minyan (quorum of ten) or wear tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). Over the past several decades, more adult women have had Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. While they are technically obligated in the mitzvot at a younger age, these ceremonies are public affirmations of their place in the Jewish community which was denied to them when they were young. Reprinted with permission from Life Cycles in Jewish and Christian Worship (The University of Notre Dame Press).

While the age of majority is not designated as such in biblical literature, the age of 20 seems to be the standard for purposes both of taxation (e.g., Exodus 30:14) and conscription (e.g., Numbers 1:3, 24). This age seems to apply equally to males and to females (see Leviticus 27:4-7), albeit only for taxation. 

The age for moral responsibility seems to be the same. In Numbers, God distinguishes those of age 20 and above, guilty of mutinous, faithless complaints, from "your little ones" and "your children," who alone will arrive in the Land of Israel as promised (Numbers 14:26-35). So the age of 20 marked the transition to adulthood in the biblical period, but no rite marking the transition is recorded there.

Intention & Liturgical Change

The balance of intention and structure that is the hallmark of Jewish liturgy is also reflected in the issue of liturgical change. Questions of change in traditional prayers come from concerns that a person cannot pray with sincerity words which may have no meaning or whose meaning does not fit with one’s religious conceptions. As is true with all aspects of liturgy, a balance is maintained between intention and structure. Liturgist Debra Reed Blank acknowledges that while Jewish liturgy has developed, those developments have fit within very specific parameters: While the aesthetics are, in her words, “malleable,” the thematic structure and the use of biblical language are constants. These represent the lines of the structure that must be maintained; within those lines, changes that respond to changing religious conception are acceptable. Reproduced with permission from JTS Magazine, Winter 2000, pages 4-5.

Some early rabbis resisted a completely fixed version of the liturgy, resulting in the designation of appropriate points for personal prayer and the development of different versions of the same berakhot (blessings). A passage in the Talmud (the main document of Rabbinic literature), for example, records two different versions of the berakhah (blessing, singular) immediately preceding the Shema. One version begins “Ahavah rabbah” (with great love) and the other begins “Ahavat olam” (with eternal love). While some communities settled on the latter alone, others allocated one version to Shaharit (morning service) and the other to Ma’ariv (evening service)–the practice recorded in Siddur Sim Shalom (the prayer book of the Conservative movement). But note that the theme of the berakhah is not altered, and the berakhah format is retained in both versions.

In the Land of Israel from about the fourth through the seventh centuries, the use of piyyutim (liturgical poems) in lieu of the standard versions of the berakhot was very popular. A piyyutic version of the Amidah (the core prayer of any Jewish prayer service), for example, would not begin “Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu velohei avoteinu…” (Praised are You, Lord our God and God of our ancestors…”) but rather with a poem. It would weave together the theme of the berakhah, in this case God as the defender of Abraham, with the Torah reading for the week or the holiday or some other appropriate reference. Scholars have uncovered many of these among the fragments found in the Cairo Genizah (cache of discarded sacred documents). They testify to a cultural willingness to view the aesthetics of liturgy as malleable. What does not change is the arrangement of the themes of the Amidah into a berakhah series, each marked by the use of the closing berakhah formula. So in a poetic version of a Shabbat Amidah, there are still seven berakhot; it’s just that the standard language has been replaced by a poem. The standard seven closing berakhah formulae are still there, with their themes intact.