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.
Rabbi Luria ruled that the bar mitzvah meal is a seudat mitzvah (a religiously commanded festive meal) on the same spiritual level as the wedding feast. The boy would have to give a religious discourse during the banquet. In Poland, the bar mitzvah discourse (drasha) became part of the festive meal. This was probably the origin of the bar and bat mitzvah speech, which, in the public imagination, became transformed into the famous "Today, I am a fountain pen" speech of classic Jewish comedy.
The bar mitzvah feast occurred in the afternoon as the third meal of the Sabbath. An hour before the afternoon service (Mincha), the lad would go to the homes of his guests to invite them to the third meal. At the meal, the lad would discourse on the customs of bar mitzvah, and he would lead the grace after the meal.
A Choice: Celebration or Conspicuous Consumption?
Modern American Jews are not the first Jews to confront the ethical overtones of conspicuous consumption [at the bar mitzvah feasts]. Even in medieval times, there were excesses in celebration. But in the 16th century, Solomon Luria didn't like what he saw. In his commentary on the Talmud, he condemned bar mitzvah parties as "occasions for wild levity, just for the purpose of stuffing the gullet" (Yam Shel Shelomo, Baba Kama, 7:37).
The rabbis of the Middle Ages eventually enacted laws to limit spending on festivities. They did this to protect the dignity of the less wealthy.
Beyond this, I suspect that the rabbis worried about the jealousy of gentile neighbors, who might use displays of Jewish opulence as an excuse for a pogrom. Saul ha-Levi Morteira, a leading rabbi of 17th-century Amsterdam (and the teacher of philosopher Baruch Spinoza), made this point in a sermon he gave around the year 1622.
The first generation of our ancestors who left the land of Canaan knew that they were resident aliens who had departed from their own land and come to a land not theirs. They continued to think of themselves as aliens, and they did not overreach. The Egyptians loved them and bore them no envy. But after their death, the following generation thought of Egypt as the land of their birth. They grew arrogant and became so provocative in their behavior that they aroused the envy of the Egyptians, who decreed harsh laws against them and enslaved them.
Finally, some historians suggest that these laws kept the emerging nouveau riche in their places so they did not threaten the status of the Jewish "old guard."
In the early decades of the 20th century, when Jews were first becoming comfortable in America, bar mitzvah parties became especially opulent. Soon, the bar mitzvah's social component would eclipse its ritual function. The 1920s and 1930s saw the growth of the catering industry, which encouraged the transformation of bar mitzvah from a ceremony to an "affair." This era also saw the growth of gift giving in connection with bar mitzvah.
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