Rabbi’s Essays


Few events in Jewish religious life are more ubiquitous than the rite of Bar/Bat Mitzvah (or B/BM). I do not know the exact percentages, but would confidently wager that more American Jewish families provide for the B/BM of their sons and daughters at the appropriate age than light Shabbat candles, or fast on Yom Kippur, or wave a lulav on Sukkot, or have a Jewish wedding. Sitting down at a Passover Seder and lighting Hanukkah candles might be more widespread. I doubt anything else comes close. Over the following paragraphs, I will like to talk about just what B/BM is. What counts for its centrality in contemporary Jewish religious life. And what are some of the features of the B/BM service, at least as I handle it.

What is it?

Let us start with terminology. B/BM is a noun, more specifically; it is an adjectival noun describing a state of being. Thus, it is similar to words like “sophomore,” “divorcee,” or “step-mother.” It is something you become. Thus, the proper expression is one becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. You do not “have a B/BM” or “get bar/bat mitzvahed.” English language, on the other hand, is a dynamic, ever-evolving entity. Verbs become nouns and nouns verbs. Hence, “to bar mitzvah” and “getting bat mitzvahed” have entered the lexicon. We should note, however, that these neologisms pertain to a religious ceremony in which an approximately 13-year-old child does something (we will get to that later). B/BM itself has an entirely different meaning. It is a state of being that is signified by the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony.

So, what is B/BM? The term is deduced from a statement in the mishnaic tractate Avot. This document was appended to the Mishna, the early third-century compilation of Oral Torah, probably at the time of the conclusion of the Talmud. Some of its statements might very well be quite old. Others, including, the passage in question, are more contemporaneous with the tractate. Here is the statement in full:

[Judah ben Tema] taught: At 5, [one begins the study] of Scripture; at 10, the Mishna; at 13, the mitzvot; at 15, the Talmud; at 18, marriage; at 20, an independent livelihood; at 30, full strength; at 40, understanding; at 50, sageness; at 60, old age; at 70, the fullness of age; at 80, strength; at 90, frailty; at 100, it is as if one had already died and passed from the world.

The entire passage is schematic. A particular quirk of the Mishna in general is that it is written for those who already know what it is saying. A good contemporary comparison might be the notes a student takes during a college lecture. If you were at the same lecture, the notes make complete sense. If not, then you have to guess a lot about the meaning of them. We therefore have to speculate on what is actually intended.

Some features of the passage seem probable. What the Sage appears to convey is the significance of certain ages in one’s life as derived by interpretation of biblical verses. This deduction is most clearly expressed in the ages 70 and 80. They are given in the well-known section of the Psalm 90: The span of one’s life is three score years and ten, or by reason of strength, four score years. [Note, the original Hebrew merely says “seventy” and “eighty.” Most of us know the Psalm through its King James rendering.] Medieval commentators sought to draw the Scriptural connection to the other ages, suggesting, for instance that study of Mishna and Talmud are simply a doubling and tripling of the age in which one begins study of Scripture itself.

“At 13, mitzvot.” The medieval commentators suggest, through some rather creative reasoning, that the number is derived from the age of Jacob’s third son, Levi, when he joined with his older brother, Shimon, in avenging the rape of their sister, Dinah (Genesis 34). Specifically, a verse (25) relates: …Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each [‘ish] took a sword. The key word is ‘ish, man. Thus, commentators deduce that at the age of thirteen, Levi qualified to be called a man.

I wish to be clear about what I think is happening here. A passage is recorded in a fifth or sixth century text that offers the age thirteen as being connected to mitzvoth (commandments). Its intrinsic meaning is elusive, but by the time of the commentators (11th – 15th century) a concrete understanding of the assertion has emerged. At age thirteen, a child becomes an ‘ish, that is, an adult or more specifically, a non-minor. Jewish practice exempts minors from certain responsibilities. At some point, however, a person moves from the status of minor to that of adult. By the Middle Ages, then, the Jewish community had conclusively established that this transformation takes place on a boy’s thirteenth birthday. This is Bar Mitzvah.

“Today, I am a man!” So goes the old line regarding Bar Mitzvah. The sentiment is true, but only in the narrowest sense. At thirteen, a child is supposed to be mature enough to appreciate obligation and responsibility. Look at the entire passage in Avot. Thirteen is fully five years away from marriage (at 18) and career (20) that are conventional indicators of adulthood. The overarching concern in the tractate is not a biological maturity%mdash;it is not puberty—but rather emotional and intellectual growth. Sometime during the study of Mishna, but not yet at the age to tackle Talmud, a person should be prepared for the responsibility of the mitzvot.

Bar Mitzvah, not Bat Mitzvah! Within the context of traditional Jewish thought, the concept of obligation is different for men and women. All Jews, regardless of age and sex, are obligated to refrain from prohibited activity. No Jew can have a ham sandwich, or eat a cupcake on Passover. Affirmative obligations, such as reciting the Shma each morning and evening, tend to be the responsibility of only adult men. In this context, the formal obligations that fall on women do not change with age. A girl is virtually Bat Mitzvah from birth. A concept of Bat Mitzvah has nonetheless come into being within the past century, even for some Orthodox Jews. I will comment on this development later.

Becoming Bar Mitzvah, at least since the early Middle Ages, has only required becoming thirteen years-old. It is automatic, just as at age twenty-one, when can buy a drink in a bar. In Jewish communities in northern Italy during the fourteenth century, a practice arose of marking the becoming a Bar Mitzvah with a public ceremony. That which we call a B/BM today – the ceremony as opposed to the state of being – was born. And from this point on, my discussion will be about the celebration of B/BM.

The Big Event

How is a B/BM supposed to be celebrated? What is the tradition? In reality, no specific set of practices have been fixed. In the mid-2000s, a journalist, Mark Oppenheimer, described a variety of Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations in his book, Thirteen and a Day. The fundamental principle is that upon reaching the age of bar/bat mitzvah, the child performs a ritual act that is an obligation of a Jewish adult. In the context of a worship service, the convention is to be called to the Torah; that is, to be given the honor/responsibility of reciting the blessings over the reading of Torah. If the day of the thirteenth birthday is not one in which Torah is read, then the affirmative act of being B/BM can be laying t’filin [the ritual boxes wrapped around one arm and placed on one’s head].

The act of becoming bar mitzvah is thus similar in structure to registering to vote on one’s eighteenth birthday. It is doing something that could not be done the day before. Jewish tradition has established formal acknowledgements of the act. Actually, the principal acknowledgment is a se’udat mitzvah, an obligatory feast. A B/BM is really not a B/BM without a party!

Before dealing with this interesting and challenging requirement, let me touch upon one other tradition. At a service in which a child is called to the Torah for the first time, the boy’s father recites a prayer: Blessed is the One Who has released me from responsibility for this [person]. The prayer has been eliminated from non-Orthodox prayerbooks. It nonetheless frames a fundamental way in which B/BM is understood. I will often tell a bar/bat mitzvah on the day of the service the following:

Yesterday, if you were to break a neighbor’s window, your parents would have to pay for the damages. Tomorrow, you would have to pay. On the other hand, if yesterday you scored a 100 on a math test, your parents would be congratulated. Next week, you would get all the credit.

In reality, a thirteen-year-old has changed very little from day before the B/BM service to the day after. But, something should surely change! While life is mostly a continuum of incremental developments, there is a dramatic difference between a child, say, of six, and that same child at eighteen. The kid has grown up, has become physically and emotionally an adult. There is more growing to come, one would hope: further developments in maturity, experience and wisdom. The child, however, is a child no more. Jewish tradition has taken a specific point in that development—and one can argue that it is virtually arbitrary—in order to mark that the change has begun. Becoming B/BM is only a beginning!

For most families, the cost of a B/BM celebration is high. Many old-timers will claim that it was not so in their day. This contention is only partially correct. A B/BM reception has always been, as a rule, a larger gathering and a more festive occasion than most any other event. There are two salient reasons why it was nevertheless smaller in the past. First, the average age in which a son or daughter had a wedding was much younger. Parents could reasonably expect that many of the more elderly relatives would be alive and well enough to attend. This expectation no longer exists, and thus, a greater effort is made to bring the extended family together at a B/BM. The second reason is that these events cost more, even when taking into account inflation. A study determined that the average cost—in constant dollars—of wedding receptions in the U.S. has more than tripled over the past forty years. We can fairly conclude that there has been a similar increase for B/BM affairs.

B/BM celebrations, by any measure, are expensive, both in money and time. There is a lot of planning: whom to invite, how to accommodate those from out-of-town, table arrangements, entertainment, the food, etc. What makes this effort worthwhile? I am sure that many families simply find themselves in a cultural bind. The only reason they are working so hard on an elaborate B/BM reception is because that is what everyone else is doing.

I spent a number of years serving a large congregation in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Occasionally, congregants would come to me to discuss plans for having the B/BM service in Israel. In the conversation it would be revealed that an important motivation for this decision was escape from the perceived expectations of the party that would take place if they had the service locally. The North Shore of Chicago is one of the areas of the country with a particularly high percentage of Jews. (Similar areas are found on Long Island, New Jersey and around Los Angeles.) On any given Saturday, especially in the Fall and Spring, four, five or more classmates from the same seventh grade in a local school will be celebrating their B/BM. Each child (and by extension, their parents) may well be fretting over who of their friends will come to their service and reception as opposed to a classmate’s. A vicious cycle of expectation and expense is created. Often, when you hear about an “over-the-top” Bar/Bat Mitzvah, it is the result of this cycle.

Areas such as the Hudson Valley are thankfully free of such competition. The affairs surrounding a B/BM are generally more modest. I think this is the case precisely because of the absence of competition. The underlying need to make the B/BM an attractive event is nevertheless very strong. Certainly, this is the case in part because of social expectations, but equally certain, there is more to it.

B/BM is a rite of passage. Other familiar rites are the b’rit milah (or b’rit ha-bat) shortly after the birth of a child, a wedding, and the funeral and attendant mourning practices at death. If Judaism and other religions did not exist, I believe a natural human tendency would still create symbolic and ceremonial activities in order to mark these most fundamental events in the course of life. Birth, marriage and death are clear markers. None of them are time-specific. They are essentially thrust upon us, and when they occur we respond. In the Jewish context, each of these moments has been valorized with a set of rituals and traditions, including significantly enough, the laying out of a meal. Even the end of life is marked by the material sustenance of life: food and drink.

B/BM represents one more definitive marker in the course of life: moving from being a child to an adult. Physically, spiritually and emotionally the development of adult is gradual. Quite in distinction from the other rites of passage mentioned, it is impossible to determine the exact time in which it occurs. Nonetheless, it does happen. Judaism is hardly the only the tradition that attempts to mark adulthood. Sweet Sixteens, the Mexican Quinceanos (15 years-old) and even High School graduations are secularized rites. All of these, and many similar ethnic and cultural practices around the world, pick a year in the maturation process and mark it with celebration.

Finding Meaning

The age of thirteen, as I have already noted, is at best the very beginning of becoming an adult. The foundational passage from the Mishna indicates as much. The ages of eighteen and twenty are set for marriage and a livelihood, markers that much more definitively express the independence associated with adulthood. Thus, thirteen, rather than being “Today, I am a man,” is more “Today, the possibility of becoming a man is now in view.” In my opinion, the purpose of the service is to exemplify this development, both literally and symbolically.

The service of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah can be as minimal as being called to recite the blessings over the Torah, or as extensive as taking responsibility for the entire service: leading the worship, reading the entire Torah portion and Haftarah, and delivering a d’rash, a thoughtful sermon or speech. At Vassar Temple, I have settled on the students leading a portion of the worship, chanting the maftir (3-5 verses at the conclusion of the Torah reading), the Haftarah, and delivering a speech. This, however, is the default expectation. Some students do more, some less.

The principal concern is not what a B/BM does in the service. It is rather in balancing two important aims. The first is that becoming a B/BM needs to be hard. Some of the students are very competent in the reading of Hebrew. For them, a few verses of Torah are not enough, and they are assigned an extra ten or more. The experience must be a challenge that requires unusual effort and preparation. The second aim is that the experience must feel fulfilling and not oppressive. Students who find learning Hebrew especially hard will generally have their Haftarah cut down in length. When the service is over, students are supposed to be able to say to themselves, “Wow, look what I have accomplished!” And not, “Gee, I am glad that is over!”

Adulthood entails responsibility. It is the ability to take on assignments that cannot be dispatched quickly and easily, but rather take determination and some hard work. In most cases, the execution of the B/BM service is the hardest thing the child has ever had to do. Of course, in the coming years, through high school, college and the rigors of family and career, there will be assignments that are much more daunting. B/BM is just the beginning. Actually, the service is the culmination of this exercise in maturation. The service thus confirms that a child has begun the process of becoming an adult. As a ritual, it is the symbolic representation of this process. What symbols are involved?

Let us step back a moment from B/BM and consider a wedding. The Jewish wedding ceremony is replete with symbolic moments: the groom escorts the bride under a wedding canopy (huppah), they share from a single cup of wine, and, of course, a glass is smashed underfoot at the end. If observers wholly unfamiliar with Jewish rituals were to regard the ceremony, they might tend to infuse these symbolic elements with meaning: two individuals bonding into a single home, and sharing both its joys (the wine) and vicissitudes (the smashed glass). Are these the actual or traditional meanings of the symbols? The proper answer is, it does not make a difference. This is how they ostensibly present themselves.

The symbols of the wedding ceremony are unique to the occasion. Other than the appearance of a thirteen-year-old child on the bima, there is nothing distinct inherent in a B/BM service. I have therefore sought to call attention to otherwise normative aspects of the service and infuse them with meaning. They might be more subtle than those presented in a wedding, but an astute observer could nevertheless take note of them.

  • The service begins with the B/BM sitting with his/her family. Only after a section of the liturgy has been completed is the child called by name onto the bima. It is the privilege of being a member of the congregation to be called upon to lead the congregation. Before the conclusion of worship, the B/BM returns to his/her original seat in the sanctuary. Being a B/BM is not an act of leaving the congregation.
  • Although the child might lead a portion of the morning service, the central event is the reading of Torah. The scroll is carried through the congregation before its reading by one of the parents. After the child has been called to the Torah, then as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, he/she carries the scroll the second time through the congregation as it is returned to the Ark. A heritage has been passed from one generation to the next.

The Bat in Bar Mitzvah

The notion that a girl would celebrate becoming a Bat Mitzvah was literally unthinkable throughout much of Jewish history. The fundamental purpose of the rite— when it actually became a ceremony— was to acknowledge the obligations a boy had in fulfilling certain mitzvot. Since these obligations never were intended to fall on a girl, the very idea of Bat Mitzvah was meaningless.

The first challenge to this structure arose from the development of a reforming movement among French and German Jews in the early nineteenth century. Reformers attacked the traditional concept of mitzvah, and in doing so attacked the ceremony of Bar Mitzvah. Yet, the early Reformers, so intent on doing away with the Bar Mitzvah service, also recognized the secondary significance of a rite of passage into adulthood. They therefore initiated an important and far-reaching innovation: Confirmation.

As first conceived, Confirmation was designed to solve a number of perceived deficiencies. The Reformers found little meaning or value in treating each child individually as they reached the age of thirteen. There was nothing ‘magical’ about that birthday. More significant, in their eyes, was the culmination of a year of learning. Thus, children at the end of the conventional Bar Mitzvah year of Grade Seven eschewed the individual service, and rather came together for a communal celebration. In this fashion, it was not only the boys but also the girls who would participate in this new ceremony.

Confirmation has persisted to this day, almost exclusively however, within Reform congregations. The Conservative and certainly the Orthodox Movements have never adopted the practice. Over time, the Confirmation service has moved to older grades—tenth grade is a norm—but has continued to be a communal celebration and sort-of graduation exercise held at the end of a school year. Indeed, many congregations devote the service on the Festival of Shavuot to Confirmation. The occasion is apt, both due to the timing of the holiday in late May or early June, and the purpose of the festival to commemorate the giving of Torah.

As a rule, throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Reform synagogues avoided the Bar Mitzvah service in favor of Confirmation. The question of establishing Bat Mitzvah was therefore moot. It should not come as a surprise that the first celebration of a Bat Mitzvah did not take place in a Reform Temple. In 1922, Judith Kaplan, the twelve-year-old daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, was called to the Torah as a Bat Mitzvah in Kaplan’s Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) synagogue. SAJ, still on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is the first congregation’s in Kaplan’s Reconstructionist Movement.

Kaplan was an Orthodox trained rabbi who taught at the Conservative Movement’s rabbinic seminary. In having his daughter become a Bat Mitzvah, Kaplan was staking out a position distinct from both Reform and tradition. As opposed to Reform, he felt it was important to preserve the institution of B/BM. In opposition to traditional, including prevailing Conservative thought, he wished to emphasize the ceremony more as a rite of passage, rather than a ritual for accepting the mitzvot. Women move from childhood to adulthood every bit as much as men.

Kaplan also decided that Bat Mitzvah should not be precisely the same as Bar Mitzvah. Thus, he had his daughter become Bat Mitzvah at the age of twelve. Girls do, in general, mature both physically and emotionally, faster than boys. If, in Kaplan’s thinking, B/BM is the ritual of becoming an adult, it should be done earlier for women.

I do not know how long a wait there was between the first and second Bat Mitzvah, or when a girl was first called to the Torah in a congregation other than SAJ. In time, however, the institution of a ceremony for girls propagated. First, it was among followers of Kaplan, (The first Bat Mitzvah ceremony in Poughkeepsie took place at Temple Beth-El under Rabbi Zimet, who was greatly influenced by Kaplan’s student, Milton Steinberg.) then through Reform and Conservative congregations. Even the Orthodox, including some rather conservative Orthodox rabbis, began to support Bat Mitzvah as a rite of passage. It remains unacceptable in most traditional congregations to have a woman be called to the Torah, so the Bat Mitzvah observance normally takes place as a Sunday luncheon, with the girl preparing and delivering a d’rash.

Traditional Bat Mitzvah observances, whether in the sanctuary during a Torah service or otherwise, still tend to take place well before the thirteenth birthday. While earlier maturation for women is normally cited, I think the principal reason is as I suggested for Kaplan; to highlight that Bar and Bat Mitzvah are different. Reform congregations (including Vassar Temple) strive to make no difference at all. The rite of passage is not biological; it is fundamentally symbolic, and the symbolism is the same for boys and girls.

Navigating the Contradictions

The old saw “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” aptly fits the occasion of B/BM. Life itself is filled with crossroads, having to make fateful decisions regarding career, family and home, among others. The B/BM often sits in the midst of such crossroads. Here are a few:

Whose B/BM? The Friday night before my son’s Bar Mitzvah service, I talked about the concept of a rite of passage. As the service concluded the next morning, my father came up to me and commented on the previous evening’s sermon. “Yes, you are right,” he said. “The Bar Mitzvah is quite a rite of passage—for the grandparents.” The B/BM has an impact that goes well beyond the child who is turning thirteen.

Most of the impact is within the family. A practice that was not a part of my own childhood experience involves the lighting of candles, usually around a birthday cake, during the B/BM reception. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah, as a rule, invites up key people to light one of the candles. And as a rule, those honored are family members and certain treasured friends. The ‘ritual’ is a particularly effective way of acknowledging relatives who had to travel a distance in order to attend the occasion. Even when friends are included in the candle-lighting, the activity tends to highlight family.

Indeed, a B/BM is so much a family-centered event that a number of synagogues set aside another space in their buildings so that regular Shabbat morning worshippers can have their own service. The B/BM belongs to the child and the family, and yet it also belongs to the congregation. At the heart of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah is taking one’s place as a full (non-minor) member of the kehillah, the Jewish religious community.

Virtually the entire onus of the occasion falls on the child and parents. The child must learn what is required in order to take part in the service. As noted above, this takes focus and endurance. The parents must make all of the arrangements; not only every aspect of the reception, but also seeing to it that the child actually does the preparation. Even with classes and a tutor, B/BM preparation mostly akin to homework.

Yet, for all this focus on the family, the synagogue is the medium in which the event takes place. A child does not become bar/bat mitzvah into a family, but into a congregation. Virtually all congregations, Vassar Temple included, establish criteria for having a B/BM service. They usually include a number of years of Religious and Hebrew instruction, which entails a number of years of membership in the congregation. Indeed, the principal underlying reason for the criteria is having the family engage with the congregation and become part of it. Ideally, the family that attends the synagogue on the occasion of the B/BM is the congregation itself.

Becoming an adult (Jew). B/BM is a rite of passage from child to adult. It is undoubtedly a Jewish rite, but it does not necessarily create a Jewish adult. The Jewish elements of B/BM lay over the ritual, but may not infuse the participants. A Jewish child becomes Bar/Bat Mitzvah on the occasion of the thirteenth birthday, exactly in the same way an American becomes eligible to vote on the eighteenth birthday, or to buy a drink at a bar at twenty-one. It is automatic, occurring whether the person acts on the new status or not. There are thus no minimum requirements or expectations.

Jewish parents—or, not infrequently, the Jewish grandparents whose child has married a non-Jew—feel a powerful need to acknowledge the sheer chronological fact of B/BM with a public observance. The impulse is certainly social and psychological. The idea of B/BM at or around the age of thirteen is both historic and widespread. It is just what Jews do! The critical component for many is the public celebration; it is the gathering, the party. After all, what a child does to become B/BM is turn thirteen. Any other expectations are purely voluntary.

What I am describing is, of course, a form of Jewish identity with virtually no content. Yet, B/BM can be such, and in a significant number of instances is such. In commenting on my own approach to B/BM at Vassar Temple, I made the congregation an important participant in the observance. Quite a few families simply find a hall, hire a rabbi, secure a Torah scroll, and have a celebration in which no congregation is in sight.

A manufactured B/BM is hardly without meaning, and being a B/BM, it is not without Jewish content. It is the fundamental recognition of a child being on the path to adulthood, and it is the Jewish expression of this important stage in the life of every child. Infusing the event with Jewish content, however, requires intention and Jewish self-awareness. In the traditional language, Bar Mitzvah is the passage from boy to man. How much of a Jewish man is up to you.

Choosing B/BM

In the early twenty-first century, B/BM is in the DNA of the Jews. It is one of the fundamental criteria of a Jewish identity. Parents are willing to put a great deal of time, energy, and money into assuring that their child will have a bar/bat mitzvah. For a vast number of Jews, most of the serious thinking regarding the B/BM goes into the arrangements. The content is left to others: a rabbi, cantor, religious school and/or synagogue administration.

And when the party is over, then what? In the final analysis, B/BM is an empty vessel. It is however a vessel! B/BM has structure—it occurs when a child is roughly thirteen, and it entails a celebration—and it is explicitly Jewish. Within these bounds almost anything can be filled. Further, it is not merely a matter of quantity, but also—for the lack of a better word—density.

The path to B/BM can be stuffed with expectations: a number of years of Jewish and Hebrew education, attendance at so many services, hours required of work on a “Mitzvah Project” (volunteer activity or social action), study and writing a thoughtful speech, and finally all the tasks of the service—prayers, blessings, Torah, Haftarah, etc. All of these prerequisites are a means to end. If the end is simply the B/BM itself, they are also easily disposed. In a short time, all that is left are the warm memories and the photos. No enduring gift is made to the future; only a debt paid to the past.

If, on the other hand, the end is to take one’s place in the Jewish community, then all or most of the prerequisites are carried over and are incorporated into adult life. Rabbis, including myself, like to say that B/BM is a comma, not a period. We say it, but the reality is that B/BM is no more—and no less—than what the child and his/her family make of it.

In the end, the choice is: did the child have a B/BM, or become a B/BM?