Today's Lavish Feasts Derive from Meals with Sacred Status

Although the bar/bat mitzvah meal is traditionally a seudat mitzvah--a meal with sacred status--extravagance has been rife for hundreds of years.

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While some Bar or Bat Mitzvah candidates spend many hours preparing for their ceremony, the party afterward can take on a life of its own. This tension has been portrayed in popular culture through films like Keeping up With the Steins. After reading the following article, consider watching the film with your child and discussing your vision for the Bar/Bat MItzvah party.

Reprinted from
Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah (Jewish Lights Publishing).

The bar and bat mitzvah party has been much criticized over the years, and for good reason. Yet most Jews do not know that the party is an integral part of the bar and bat mitzvah ritual. The first mention of the bar mitzvah party is in the Shulhan Arukh (the classic 16th-century code of Jewish law), "It is the religious obligation of the father to tender a festive meal in honor of his son's becoming bar mitzvah, just as he might do when the boy marries." 

A Long Tradition

From a halakhic (Jewish legal) point of view, then, the party has a proud lineage. But references to bar mitzvah parties go back even further. Scholars have a field day in locating the genuine seed of the custom.

Photo courtesy of Party Perfect Orlando

Some say it goes back to Isaac's weaning. Genesis 21:8 says Abraham threw a feast to celebrate that event. One ancient source suggested that Isaac was weaned at the age of 13 (Midrash, Bereshit Rabbah 53:10)! Therefore, the party, and, therefore, the connection to the age of 13.

Elsewhere, the midrash [interpretive tradition] suggests that Abraham regretted that he had rejoiced and made others rejoice at the feast for Isaac, yet did not make an offering to God. God said to him, "I know that even if I commanded you to offer your only son to Me, you would not refuse" (Bereshit Rabbah 55:4). This midrash teaches that the binding of Isaac was God's way of showing Abraham that he had not lost the capacity to make an offering to God.

Some say the tradition of the bar mitzvah party goes back to Rabbi Yosef in the Talmud (Kiddushin 31a). Rabbi Yosef was blind. In Jewish law, the blind were exempt from doing mitzvot (commandments). But Rabbi Yosef realized that he was already doing the mitzvot. Why not get "credit" for doing so? He wanted to change his status from someone who didn't have to do the mitzvot to someone who had to do the mitzvot.

So Rabbi Yosef made an offer. If some skilled sage could prove that a blind person had an obligation to do mitzvot, he would host a great celebration to mark his change in status. A little more than 1,000 years later, the 16th-century legal authority, Rabbi Solomon Luria, drew on his knowledge of this talmudic discussion. He reasoned that if Rabbi Yosef could celebrate that he was now obligated to do the mitzvot, shouldn't we celebrate and give thanks to God that a bar mitzvah was now obligated to fulfill the mitzvot?

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Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the Senior Rabbi of The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York; the Co-chair of the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach.