History of Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation
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).
Although the popularity of bar mitzvah may have waned in liberal circles during the heyday of confirmation, it has enjoyed a rebirth in recent decades. At the same time, bat mitzvah has developed as a ritual alternative for girls in the Conservative and the Reform movements.
Although many associate the first bat mitzvah ceremony with that of Judith Kaplan, daughter of Reconstructionism's founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, in 1922, there is evidence of earlier synagogue celebrations in Italy, France, and Poland. Even Kaplan's ceremony was a pale imitation of what was to come. Judith chanted the blessings over the Torah and then read a passage in Hebrew from a printed Bible, yet the innovative spark of her bat mitzvah was its focus on the ritual involvement and coming of age of one girl. Whereas many early bat mitzvahs, and even some today, took place at a Friday night service, during which the girl chanted the next morning's haftarah (the weekly prophetic portion), today bar and bat mitzvahs are virtually identical in most liberal synagogues.
Among traditional Jews, bat mitzvah has been slower to develop as a ritual observance, although the coming-of-age aspect was often affirmed by a small party or festive meal at the girl's home. More recently, in liberal Orthodox environments, as the Jewish education of girls has become nearly identical to that of boys, girls have begun to observe the occasion by giving talks from the pulpit after the service, either on the Torah portion or on some aspect of women's ritual involvement.
Another influence on the development of bat mitzvah within Orthodoxy is the women's prayer group, where women lead services (amended to leave out prayers requiring the presence of ten men, a minyan) and read Torah and haftarah. These services offer role models for women's ritual involvement as well as a venue for bat mitzvahs where girls can have an "aliyah" (with amended blessings), read Torah, and even lead services.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.