“Bar Mitzvah” literally
means “son of the commandment.” “Bar” is “son” in
Aramaic, which used to be the vernacular
of the Jewish people. “Mitzvah”
is “commandment” in both Hebrew
and Aramaic. “Bat” is daughter
in Hebrew and Aramaic. (The Ashkenazic pronunciation
are not obligated to observe the commandments,
although they are encouraged to do so as
much as possible to learn the obligations
they will have as adults. At the age of 13
(12 for girls), children become obligated
to observe the commandments. The Bar Mitzvah
ceremony formally marks the assumption of
that obligation, along with the corresponding
right to take part in leading religious
services, to count in a minyan (the
minimum number of people needed to perform
certain parts of religious services), to
form binding contracts, to testify before
religious courts and to marry.
A Jewish boy automatically
becomes a Bar Mitzvah upon reaching the age
of 13 years. No ceremony is needed to confer
these rights and obligations. The popular
bar mitzvah ceremony is not required, and
does not fulfill any commandment. It is a
relatively modern innovation, not mentioned
in the Talmud,
and the elaborate ceremonies and receptions
that are commonplace today were unheard of
as recently as a century ago.
In its earliest and most
basic form, a Bar Mitzvah is the celebrant's
During Shabbat services on
a Saturday shortly after the child's 13th
birthday, the celebrant is called up to the Torah to
recite a blessing over
Today, it is common practice
for the Bar Mitzvah celebrant to do much
more than just say the blessing. It is most
common for the celebrant to learn the entire haftarah portion,
including its traditional chant, and recite
that. In some congregations, the celebrant
reads the entire weekly torah portion, or
leads part of the service, or leads the congregation
in certain important prayers. The celebrant
is also generally required to make a speech,
which traditionally begins with the phrase “today
I am a man.“
The father recites a blessing thanking G-d for
removing the burden of being responsible
for the son's sins.
In modern times, the religious
service is followed by a reception that is
often as elaborate as a wedding reception.
and Chasidic practice, women are not
permitted to participate in religious services
in these ways, so a bat mitzvah, if celebrated
at all, is usually little more than a party.
In other movements of
Judaism, the girls do exactly the same
thing as the boys.
It is important to note
that a bar mitzvah is not the goal of a Jewish
education, nor is it a graduation ceremony
marking the end of a person's Jewish education.
We are obligated to study Torah throughout
our lives. To emphasize this point, some
rabbis require a bar mitzvah student to sign
an agreement promising to continue Jewish
education after the bar mitzvah.
movement tried to do away with the
Bar Mitzvah for a while, scorning the idea
that a 13 year old child was an adult.
They replaced it with a confirmation at
the age of 16 or 18. However, due to the
overwhelming popularity of the ceremonies,
the Reform movement has revived the practice.
I don't know of any Reform synagogues that
do not encourage the practice of Bar and
Bat Mitzvahs today. In some Conservative synagogues,
however, the confirmation practice continues
as a way to keep children involved in Jewish
education for a few more years.
The age set for bar mitzvah
is not an outdated notion based on the needs
of an agricultural society, as some suggest.
This criticism comes from a misunderstanding
of the significance of the bar mitzvah. Bar
mitzvah is not about being a full adult in
every sense of the word, ready to marry,
go out on your own, earn a living and raise
children. The Talmud makes
this abundantly clear. In Pirkei Avot,
it is said that while 13 is the proper age
for fulfillment of the Commandments, 18 is
the proper age for marriage and
20 is the proper age for earning a livelihood.
Elsewhere in the Talmud, the proper age for
marriage is said to be 16-24. Bar mitzvah
is simply the age when a person is held responsible
for his actions and minimally qualified to
If you compare this to
secular law, you will find that it is not
so very far from our modern notions of a
child's maturity. In Anglo-American common
law, a child of the age of 14 is old enough
to assume many of the responsibilities of
an adult, including minimal criminal liability.
In many states, a fourteen year old can marry
with parental consent. Children of any age
are permitted to testify in court, and children
over the age of 14 are permitted to have
significant input into custody decisions
in cases of divorce.