Few events in Jewish religious life are more ubiquitous than the rite of Bar/Bat Mitzvah (or
What is it?
Let us start with terminology.
So, what is
[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
The Big Event
How is a
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
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
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
For most families, the cost of a
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
Areas such as the Hudson Valley are thankfully free of such competition. The affairs surrounding a
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
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
Let us step back a moment from
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
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
Becoming an adult (Jew).
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
What I am describing is, of course, a form of Jewish identity with virtually no content. Yet,
In the early twenty-first century,
And when the party is over, then what? In the final analysis,
The path to
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
In the end, the choice is: did the child have a