Most rabbis by now have given up on explaining that there is really no verb “to bar mitzvah someone” or to be “bat mitzvahed.” Bar and Bat Mitzvah are nouns that indicate that a person has reached the age when Jewish tradition recognizes that they are now obligated to fulfill the requirements of Jewish life, to keep the mitzvot, the commandments of Judaism. There is no ceremony required to “bar mitzvah” someone. It is simply the state of reaching the requisite age. The main requirement is to keep breathing.
The Torah nowhere states that a child assumes the mitzvot of an adult at age 13. More commonly one finds age 20 as the age when young men assume the responsibilities of adult life back in biblical days. In our recent Torah readings, we saw that young men were not included in the census figures until they reached age 20. At that age they went forth to war with the other men. It was at age 20 that the Levites began their service in the Tabernacle as well. The same is true for a number of other laws back then.
A few early medieval authorities believed that the age of 13 became important either by custom or as a tradition going back to Moses at Sinai (an expression we often use for hoary customs whose origin is unknown.) For some areas of Jewish law,reaching age 13 is not sufficient unless one also manifests the signs of puberty. We can point to the statement in Pirke Avot in the list of the “ages of man,” that 13 is the age of mitzvot. However, many rabbis question the authenticity of this statement which does not appear in every edition of the Mishnah including the edition used by Maimonides. Even so, some do find hints about age 13 being the time for reaching adulthood in several places in the Midrash.
Originally, children assumed various mitzvot gradually as they became older and able to take responsibility for ritual items and to incorporate these observances into their lives. Even the mitzvah of tefillin which became associated with bar mitzvahwas observed earlier in some communities. Beginning in the Geonic, post-Talmudic, period of the 8th century, we find boys in Babylonia called to the Torah for the first time at age 13. This practice did not appear in Europe prior to the 11th century, but by the 13th century, we find that reaching this age of mitzvot becomes an occasion for celebration, with new clothing and a festive meal on Shabbat. This custom spread from Germany to Italy and various countries of the East. By the 16th century we have a description of a bar mitzvah in Poland including an official seudat mitzvah, a feast marking a mitzvah, as well as a formal drashah, a sermon for the occasion. In Yemen, the young man was introduced to a cup of Arak to indicate that now he was indeed a man. In Long Island where I served for a year as interim rabbi, they did the same to their kids, but with Irish whiskey, Tullamore Dew.
As we know, various communities added their own customs and the significance of becoming bar mitzvah grew in importance. We have also seen that in some places, the celebration tended to outweigh the assumption of the mitzvot. As mentioned before, the beginning of the daily wearing of tefillin at weekday prayer has been a traditional marker of this new status and each community had its rules regarding when the boy began laying tefillin. If the boy was a Yeshiva student, he was expected to prepare a learned talk on some topic, more often than not, it related to the laws of tefillin.
If the occasion was on a weekday, a Torah reading day was chosen closest to the 13th birthday and the young man would be called to the Torah. Generally, in this country, I’ve seen, most bar mitzvah ceremonies take place on Shabbat and the celebrant is called to the Torah for maftir, he may read that section from the Torah, and is expected to chant the haftarah following. Other congregations may expect him to lead portions or all ofthe service for Shabbat morning. When parents began trying to outdo one another in the celebrations, some synagogues had to institute sumptuary laws limiting the extent of the celebration in the synagogue. Of course, what parents do afterward often seems to have no limit. People joke about the bar mitzvah safari, but over the years I have encountered a number ofcelebrations that went way over the top even if they didn’t include elephants and pith helmets.
All of this is for boys, but what about their sisters? Our sages noted that young women often demonstrate greater understanding and maturity at an earlier age than the boys. Thus, the official age for a girl to become bat mitzvah is age 12. There was some discussion among the early sages as to when precisely to mark this transition. Some preferred age 13, while others used age 12 or even 11 for some matters. In many modern congregations, where the boys and girls study together, the practice is for both boys and girls to mark this milestone at age 13, following the same amount of study in religious school.
While the age may have been determined back in the days of the Mishnah, the marking of the occasion in any official way did not happen until the early 19th century with the rise of the Reform Movement in Germany. At that point, the Reformers introduced a Confirmation ceremony, often around Shavuot, including both boys and girls. In some places this ceremony took the place of the bar mitzvah ceremony. Though some authorities in the more traditional sectors of the community objected to what they saw as the adoption of a Christian practice into the synagogue, others saw value in emphasizing the importance of Jewish knowledge and practice for teenagers. Thus by the middle of the 19thcentury, some Orthodox rabbis felt pressured or were actually required by law to institute some kind of ceremony for confirmation. Even in recent years, many Conservative congregations have utilized confirmation as a way to encourage students to continue their studies beyond bar or bat mitzvah. In Reform Temples which may still offer confirmation, generally bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies are held nowadays for all.
In some communities, even in traditional congregations by the second half of the 19th century, there began to be some recognition of young girls becoming bat mitzvah. In some places this was manifested in a celebration at home marking this new status. Elsewhere, the young girl’s father might be called to the Torah and following the service there could be some recognition of the occasion with a sermon or a d’var Torah by the young woman or the rabbi, and there might be the presentation of a book or some other reminder of the day. While some Orthodox authorities condemned the practice of bat mitzvah as following in “the ways of the gentiles,” others up to the present day considered it a worthwhile custom and even prescribed the recitation of the same blessing that a father is supposed to say for a bar mitzvah, to be said on the occasion ofa bat mitzvah with the appropriate change of gender. For boys, the father would say, “Baruch shepetarani mei-onsho shel zeh, Blessed be the One who released me from the punishment of this one.” For a girl, “Baruch shepetarani mei-onshah shel zot.` The idea was that up to this point, the father took responsibility for any sins and transgressions of his child. After reaching this milestone, the responsibility fell on the child’s shoulders as an adult. Some saw the blessing in reverse. Up till now, the punishment for any sins of the father might be visited upon the child. After this, the father feels relief that his child no longer suffers for his sins.
In 1922, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, then serving as rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, held a bat mitzvah ceremony for his daughter Judith in the synagogue. Though this first bat mitzvah was very limited in scope, gradually young women took on greater responsibilities and were allowed to participate to an ever-increasing degree in the service. Many of us recall that in the ‘50s, not all girls or their parents chose to mark the bat mitzvah. Confirmation ceremonies for girls were often the rule, if that much. Some parents spoke of waiting untilthe girl’s wedding day for the big party. Even so, some girls chose to hold a bat mitzvah ceremony, but until the ‘70s, mostsynagogues limited the participation for bat mitzvah to the Friday night service. In the congregation in which I grew up, girls were allowed to recite a Psalm or two from the Kabbalat Shabbat, to recite the Kiddush, and they also would read part or all of the haftarah designated for the next day. I remember the girls were required to wear white robes to present an appropriate and dignified presence on the bimah. Too often girls wore party dresses that were not in keeping with a religious service or there was bit of competition among the girls to show off in an expensive, fancy dress. The robe provided a coverup until the reception. Though boys usually got a new suit for the ceremony, it seems like the competition among them, if at all, was to find a real bargain since parents knew the child would grow out of the suit too quickly to make it worthwhile to buy a classy, tailored garment.
As congregations in the ’70s and ‘80s began calling women to the Torah (though the Conservative ruling on this practice goes back to 1955), bat mitzvah ceremonies were moved to Saturday mornings and girls were called to the Torah and read the haftarah at its proper time. Later, in most congregations where bar mitzvah boys were expected to lead parts of the service, the girls did the same. On occasion, when a child faced some limitations, an alternative was to hold the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah ceremony at minchah in the late afternoon. This practice was often discouraged when parents tried to take advantage of it so their guests only had to sit through a short service before the party began, right after Havdalah.
Another phenomenon which began around the same time, was the desire by some women (and a few men) to make up for not marking their bar or bat mitzvah when they were teenagers. Some women had very limited Hebrew education and sought to learn to read Hebrew to follow the service. Many rabbis began offering adult bat mitzvah classes. These varied greatly in length and content. At the end of the class, the participants held a group bat mitzvah with everyone taking some part in the service. Over the years, I have worked with a number of women and helped them mark their belated bat mitzvah. Some have shared the day with their daughters and both mother and daughter have been called to the Torah and participated in different portions of the service. Others have chosen to hold a bat mitzvah to mark a milestone in their lives. I had one woman who scheduled her bat mitzvah for her 65th birthday. She told me that once her younger brother came on the scene, her father seemed to neglect her Jewish education. The brother became a prominent Orthodox scholar, while she learned in a more traditional way for the times. She had hoped that her 90-year-old father might come down to Charleston from New York for the bat mitzvah. Unfortunately, he did not feel well enough to make the trip, but wrote her a beautiful letter for the occasion.
In light of the Psalmist’s teaching that the years of our lives number three-score and ten or by reason of strength four-score, some people start counting the years again from age 70 and thus on the 13th year or at age 83, they are ready to celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah. In some cases, the men have a second bar mitzvah, while for women, often it is the first. The degree of the participation in the service varies greatly, with some satisfied simply to take an Aliyah and others preparing much more to mark the day. This weekend we will join with Susan Kayser in celebrating her bat mitzvah as she marks her 83rd birthday. She had a confirmation when she was younger, but no bat mitzvah. So she has been working hard for over a year to prepare to lead the service, read from the Torah, and chant the haftarah. We extend a mazal tov to her and her husband Boris, as she marks this special occasion. I am hoping that Susan’s celebration might encourage other women or men to arrange for a similar event to mark an appropriate occasion.
Of course, while the emphasis often is on the ritual performance on the occasion, many congregations have encouraged young people to take their arrival at this stage of life as an opportunity to choose a mitzvah project, to do something that will bring benefit to others as they assume the mitzvot of Judaism. Frequently we focus on the commandments between us and God, but our tradition insists that mitzvot between one person and others in the community should be at the top of the list. Though, as we’ve seen, bar and bat mitzvah does not directly come from the Torah, its development serves as a reminder to each of us of our responsibility when we take the teachings of Torah to heart.