The Age Requirement for Bar/Bat Mitzvah

How Old is Old Enough?

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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.

Physical Maturity

In rabbinic literature (primarily the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud, with respective editorial dates of approximately 200 CE and 550 CE), the ages of 12 years and one day for girls and 13 years and one day for boys--the ages widely regarded traditionally as the threshold of adulthood--begin to take on significance.

This change from the biblical age of majority may reflect outside influence. At this point, a 13-year-old boy is obligated to participate in public, religious fasts. Likewise any vows he might make are to be regarded as valid.

Two criteria are given for this chronological marker for boys: physical maturation and moral discernment. The first is reflected in the assumption that at about that age, pubic hair appears. "A boy who has grown two [pubic] hairs is subject to all the commandments in the Torah."

But physical signs are not enough. He must attain a certain age as well. "From the point of his birth until he is 13, he is called a boy or a baby. Even if within this period he grows a couple of [pubic] hairs, these are not considered evidence [of maturation], but [only] a mole [with hairs]."

Moral Maturity

However, 13 is not an arbitrarily determined transition point based solely upon its being associated with a boy's physical coming of age. Moral maturation also occurs at this point, as the midrashic collection Avot deRabbi Natan indicates. "The evil inclination...grows with and accompanies the child from the moment it comes forth from the mother's womb. A child who begins to violate the Sabbath is not deterred; a child about to take a life is not deterred: a child about to commit an immoral act is not deterred. After 13 years, however, the good inclination is born in him. If then he is about to violate the Sabbath, it warns him."

Rabbinic literature appreciates this process as a gradual movement into adulthood rather than a sudden, absolute, and singular moment of transition. So while a 13-year-old boy's vows are accepted as binding, his testimony regarding real estate negotiations is not, because though he is 13 and a man for some purposes, for others he is still only a boy, lacking in sufficient knowledge to be held liable. Moreover, 13 is not an absolute beginning just as it is not an absolute end to the maturation process; thus, upon examination, a boy's vows even from the age of 12 and one day will be accepted.

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Dr. Debra R. Blank

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