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.

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?

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.

Soon, the materialism that had become attached to bar mitzvah was decried. In 1938, the noted Orthodox rabbi, H. Pereira Mendes, insisted that the bar mitzvah “not be allowed to deteriorate into merely a day for perfunctory observance or for merry-making or gifts.”

Twenty-six years later, the Central Conference of American Rabbis [the chief body of Reform rabbis] condemned the deterioration in the character of the bar mitzvah “affair.” The extravagant consumption, the conspicuous waste, and the crudity of many of these affairs are rapidly becoming a public Jewish scandal. The lowering of standards as reflected in many bar mitzvah celebrations is in direct violation of the teaching of the Torah. The trend toward the abandonment of aesthetic standards can lead to the abandonment of ethical standards as well.

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