History of Bar Mitzvah
Originally bar mitzvah meant simply "coming of age." The ceremony developed much later.
Schauss traces bar mitzvah from biblical and talmudic times, when it meant simply reaching the age of majority, through later ceremonial observances of the occasion. Particularly interesting is his focus on customs surrounding the bar mitzvah ceremony, both in Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. He also suggests why it became traditional for the bar mitzvah to read the maftir, the last of the section of the Torah portion on a Shabbat. Adapted with permission from The Lifetime of a Jew Throughout the Ages of Jewish History (UAHC Press, now out of print).
In the Bible, a man reached the age of majority at age 20, when he was eligible for war and taxation. In talmudic times, the age of majority was moved to 13, and in recognition of the son's change in status, the father pronounced a blessing in which he praised God for relieving him of responsibility for his son's conduct. But no celebration marked the occasion.
Talmud Allows Ritual Involvement of Minors
During the talmudic era and early medieval times, a ceremony made no sense, because a minor was permitted to participate in all religious observances as soon as he was considered mentally fit [to do so]. He was called up to an aliyah to say blessings over the Torah and was supposed to wear tefillin, or phylacteries. The minor was even encouraged to fast on Yom Kippur. Two years before he turned 13, a child fasted until noon, and a year before his majority, he fasted the whole day.
The distinction between a minor and one who had obtained his majority was theoretical. The latter did as a religious duty what a minor did optionally. The majority was not distinguished by additional religious duties and privileges, and therefore the attainment of majority could not be marked by any special observances. Until late in the Middle Ages, the attainment of majority was an uneventful date in the life of the Jew.
As Minor's Religious Rights Give Way, Age of Majority Gains Importance
Gradually, during the later Middle Ages, this situation underwent a change. The religious rights that the Talmud accorded to the minor were now restricted. He was deprived of the right to be "called up" to the reading of the Torah. He was no longer permitted to wear tefillin. The attainment of majority gained new importance as an attainment of new religious rights, and the ground was prepared for a ceremony around the bar mitzvah, as a boy 13 years old was beginning to be called.
In the 16th century, among the Jews of Germany and Poland, it was the accepted custom that a boy could not begin to wear tefillin before the day following his 13th birthday. This custom was modified in the 17th century. The boy began wearing tefillin two or three months before he became bar mitzvah, so that by the time he reached his majority he was well acquainted with the practice and rules of laying tefillin.