Jewish Practices & Rituals: Bar/Bat Mitzvah
BAR MITZVAH, BAT MITZVAH (Heb. masc. בַּר מִצְוָה, fem. בַּת מִצְוָה; lit. "son/daughter of the commandment," i.e., a person under obligation, responsible), term denoting both the attainment of religious and legal maturity as well as the occasion at which this status is formally assumed for boys at the age of 13 plus one day, for girls at 12 plus one day (Maim. Yad, Ishut, 2:9–10). Upon reaching this age a Jew is obliged to fulfill all the *commandments (Avot 5:1; cf. Yoma 82a). Although the term occurs in the Talmud for one who is subject to the law (BM 96a), its usage to denote the occasion of assuming religious and legal obligations does not appear before the 15th century (Sefer Ẓiyyoni of R. Menahem Ẓiyyoni to Gen. 1:5). A special celebration for a girl, the bat mitzvah, is not found mentioned before Ben Ish Ḥai, the legal code by Joseph Ḥayyim b. Elijah (19th cent.).
While the occasion of becoming bar/bat mitzvah was thus formalized only in later times, it is obvious from various sources that the status of obligation for boys of 13 was assumed in early times. According to Eleazar b. Simeon (second century C.E.), a father was responsible for the deeds of his son until the age of 13. For example the vows of a boy 13 and a day old are considered valid vows (Nid. 5:6). From then on a person can perform acts having legal implications, such as being a member of a bet din, being reckoned as part of a minyan, and buying and selling property. Yet there are notable exceptions, e.g., the testimony of a 13-year-old is not valid regarding real estate because he is "not knowledgeable about buying and selling" (Maim. Yad, Edut, 9:8).
Jewish law fixed 13 as the age of responsibility considering this the time of physical maturity for boys (and 12 for girls; Kid. 16b). At this age young people are thought to be able to control their desires (ARN2 16, 62–63). Rashi claims that bar mitzvah as a status of obligation was "in the category of biblical laws, as it was given to Moses at Sinai" (comment. to Avot 5:1). Midrashic literature gives many references for 13 as the turning point in the life of a young person, e.g., Abraham rejected the idols of his father at this age (PdRE 26), and at 13 Jacob and Esau went their separate ways, the former to study Torah, the latter to idol-worship (Gen. R. 63:10). Until 13 a son receives the merit of his father and is also liable to suffer for his parent's sin; after that each one bears his own sin (Yal. Ruth 600). This is also the time of transition from elementary school to the bet ha-midrash (ibid.). A tradition recorded in talmudic literature (Sof. 18:7, ed. M. Higger 1937) alludes to the fact that in Jerusalem during the period of the Second Temple, it was customary for the sages to bless a child who had succeeded in completing his first fast day at 12 or 13.
Being Called to the Torah
The calling up to the reading of the Torah is a symbol of a boy's attaining maturity. He is called up on the first occasion that the Torah is read following his 13th birthday according to the Jewish calendar. This is the first public demonstration of his new role as a full member of the community and, in modern times, it is to this occasion that the term bar mitzvah usually refers. When the boy's father is called to the Torah, he recites the benediction, "Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this one" (Gen. R. loc. cit.). Among observant Jews in Eastern Europe the boy was usually called up to the Torah on the Monday or the Thursday following his birthday. In Western Europe, the occasion took on a more ceremonial importance, and it was customary for the bar mitzvah boy to be called up to the Torah to read the maftir portions and the haftarah on the first Sabbath after his birthday. For this task he had previously been prepared. According to an old Ashkenazi custom in Lithuania, Ereẓ Israel, etc., the boy recited the maftir on the Sabbath just before becoming fully 13, and immediately upon coming of age he received an ordinary aliyah. In the 17th and 18th centuries the custom was recorded in Worms, Germany, that those boys who were able and had pleasing voices conducted parts or all of the service. In some communities it was and still is customary for the young man to read the whole portion of the week. On a Sabbath when a bar mitzvah is celebrated, the morning service assumes a more festive atmosphere. Members of the boy's family are also called up to the reading of the Torah, and a special sermon is frequently delivered by the rabbi, stressing the boy's new responsibilities and privileges. In many modern synagogues, the rabbi ends his sermon by invoking the *Priestly Blessing or other blessing, and the bar mitzvah boy is given a gift from the congregation. After the service, a festive Kiddush is often held, with a banquet on the same or the following day. Some authorities ruled that parents must arrange a banquet when their son became bar mitzvah just as they do on the day of his wedding (see Magen Avraham on Sh. Ar., OḤ 225:2). Among the Jews of Morocco a special piyyut is recited when a bar mitzvah boy is called up to the Torah and, in most synagogues, a special *Mi she-Berakh blessing is made at the end of the reading for the boy and his family.
Putting on Tefillin
The major ritual innovation obligatory on a boy reaching bar mitzvah is that henceforth he is required to put on tefillin for the morning prayer. He is usually coached in the forms of the rite some time before the bar mitzvah. The Sephardim and some of the Ḥasidim, interpreting the Kabbalah very exactly, insist that tefillin cannot be worn one day before bar mitzvah. Only when the boy has become fully 13 and one day does he keep this commandment. For the Sephardim the first occasion of putting on the tefillin was part of the celebration of the bar mitzvah itself. At that time a scholar or elder was honored with aiding the young man in donning the tefillin. Ḥasidim of the Ḥabad school taught that boys began putting on tefillin two months prior to the actual bar mitzvah, the first month without pronouncing the blessing, and the second month saying it.
The Bar Mitzvah Derashah
Solomon Luria (16th century) states that the bar mitzvah celebration was customary among Ashkenazim and that the boy was tutored to deliver a derashah ("talmudic discourse") during the banquet (Yam shel Shelomo BK 7:37). It usually dealt with some aspect of the rite; Sephardim call it the tefillin derashah. The discourse frequently serves as an occasion for the boy to thank his parents for their love and care, and the guests for their participation in his celebration. The custom is still observed today, with sons of traditional families giving a talmudic discourse, and others a more general talk. In Conservative, Reform, and some Orthodox synagogues a prayer before the ark is sometimes said by the bar mitzvah boy in place of the derashah.
Most congregational Hebrew schools have special classes for the preparation of bar/bat mitzvah students. In some congregations (notably the United Synagogue of Great Britain) the boy is not allowed to celebrate his bar mitzvah until after he passes an examination in Hebrew and the fundamentals of the Jewish religion.
Since 1967, some boys from Israel and abroad celebrate their bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. Some Jews from outside Israel make a special pilgrimage to celebrate their son's bar mitzvah there.
Reform congregations have instituted what is known as a Confirmation ceremony. This was originally in 19th century German Reform a substitution for bar mitzvah. The ceremony was held at a later age – 16 or 17 – on the grounds that before that age a young person cannot really understand the implications of the rituals. In modern times, especially in the U.S., confirmation has been adopted as a ceremony additional to bar mitzvah which is celebrated in a more traditional manner. The main intention of confirmation was to prolong the period of a child's Jewish education, and as such it is usually a ceremony with a "class" of young people being confirmed at the same time. The ceremony is usually held on or about Shavuot. The confirmands recite various sections from Scriptures and publicly declare their devotion to Judaism. The boys and girls frequently receive a special certificate, testifying their acceptance into the Jewish community.
The term bat mitzvah occurs only once in the Talmud (BK 15a), in reference to the time a girl becomes subject to the obligations of Jewish law incumbent on adults. While Avot 5:21 asserts that 13 is the age of adult responsibility, Niddah 5:6 rules that the vows of a girl who is 12 and one day are deemed valid, as are the vows of a boy who is 13 and one day. Similarly, after their respective 12th and 13th birthdays, girls and boys must fast on Yom Kippur (Yoma 85). Talmudic discussion in Kiddushin 16b clarifies that a boy is of age when physical signs of adulthood appear after he is 13 plus one day. Maimonides (Yad, Ishut 2:9–10) completes the equation and specifies that a girl's signs of adulthood are those that appear only after her 12th birthday plus one day. Aside from assuming ritual obligations, adult responsibility meant that a young woman was no longer dependent on her father, mother, or brother in marital arrangements and could act on her own behalf. Prior to the modern era this change in a female's status was rarely celebrated in a communal context. It is not until the 19th century that indications of ceremony or public recognition come from Italy, Eastern and Western Europe, Egypt, and Baghdad. These acknowledgements of female religious adulthood include a private blessing, a father's aliyah to the Torah, a rabbi's sermon and/or a girl's public examination on Judaic matters. Bat mitzvah as a female ceremony equivalent or identical to the male bar mitzvah is not found until the middle of the 20th century and is an American innovation, discussed in more detail below.
The earliest source, from Verona on Passover 1844, refers to an iniziazione religiosa delle fanciulle and la maggiorita delle fanciulle. This reference to entrance "into minyan" was used for boys and girls. By the end of the century, this ritual had also spread to other cities such as Ancona, Bologna, and Rome. During this confirmation-like process the girl recited some biblical verses and a liturgical selection and a rabbi delivered a sermon. There was great debate in the 19th century Italian community as to whether this was a permitted rite. In Italy today a 12-year-old female is examined by a rabbi, usually on Shavuot or Purim, after which she reads special prayers in Hebrew and Italian in the synagogue; a celebratory party follows. Edda Servi Machlin describes her 1938 bat mitzvah experience in her cookbook, The Classic Cuisine of Italian Jews (1981), p. 69.
Some scholars have mentioned Rabbi Jacob *Ettlinger of Germany as favoring some form of puberty lifecycle event. It is clear, however, in Ettlinger's Binyan Ẓiyyon 107 (1867), p. 145, that he opposed confirmation or any similar celebration. Rather, in accordance with Danish regulations, he gave some girls a public exam on the completion of their religious studies (limmudei kodesh) and then delivered a sermon. All this took place in the synagogue. Intriguing references to bat mitzvah celebrations in various European cities include a confirmation in Warsaw in 1843 and a party in Lvov in 1902. Rabbi Musafiya notes that bat mitzvah celebrations were held in France towards the end of the 19th century. Anecdotal references to bat mitzvah celebrations include that of Charlotte Salomon (1917–1943) in Berlin (see Mary Lowenthal Felstiner, To Paint Her Life (1997)).
Rabbi Elijah Hazzan held a synagogue celebration for benot mitzvah (pl.) girls who had completed studies in religion and Jewish history in 1907 in Alexandria.
One significant early reference to a celebration for a girl is found in the book Ben Ish Ḥai by Rabbi *Joseph Ḥayyim b. Elijah of Iraq (1834–1909). In his discussion of parashat Re'eh, note 17, vol. 1, p. 132, Rabbi Ḥayyim posits that there
is an equal sense of simḥah for boys and girls as they reach juridical responsibility; he recommends celebrating the girl's 12th birthday in some liturgical fashion. He declared that even though it was not the custom in his community (Baghdad) to make a se'udat mitzvah, nonetheless the event should be celebrated on that day and the girl should wear special (Sabbath) clothing. If at all possible, her father should buy her a new dress so that she could say the benediction sheheḥeyanu on the occasion of her bat mitzvah.
In Israel it became customary to celebrate a girl's 12th birthday with a party. It was called a bat mitzvah but there was rarely any liturgical or synagogue component. In the early 21st century, often all the girls in a class prepare for a group celebration after studying relevant material throughout the school year. Some synagogues and schools do enable a ritual format for girls while some families go to Rachel's tomb or other sacred sites for a party. Tourists and Israelis who desire a liturgical and Torah element for a girl's bat mitzvah may go to the Western Wall to pray with the Women of the Wall.
There are reports of various forms of bat mitzvah ceremonies in the American Midwest as early as 1907, but the best-known bat mitzvah ritual was created in 1922 by Rabbi Mordecai *Kaplan for his daughter Judith Kaplan *Eisenstein . Although innovative in concept and held in a synagogue, it was not identical to a contemporary bar mitzvah which would have included an aliyah and the ritual recitation of a haftarah. Rather, Judith Kaplan read a section selected by her father from a printed Ḥumash (Five Books of Moses). The egalitarian bat mitzvah format, identical to a bar mitzvah, is not documented until 1940 and did not spread across North America until after the 1960s. The history of these ritual performances developed along denominational lines. Initially, the Reform movement was divided over any bat mitzvah rite as many congregations preferred a group confirmation ceremony for girls and boys at age 15 or 16. However, by the early 1960s, many North American Reform congregations offered prepared girls the option of bat mitzvah as well as confirmation. Although these early benot mitzvah generally read from the Torah scroll, their liturgical roles were often less than those of a bar mitzvah. Within the Conservative movement of the 1950s and 1960s there was debate as to where to place a ceremony for girls and what its content should be. During the 1970s and 1980s, the ritual celebration of bat mitzvah became ensconced within Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist congregations. At the beginning of the 21st century, most benot mitzvah in the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements perform the same liturgical roles as a bar mitzvah, including reading from the Torah scroll and recitation of a haftarah. For some the ceremony is held on Friday night; but for most it takes place during Sabbath morning services.
By the 1970s many in Orthodox movements also sought ways to fit a bat mitzvah into the established order of worship in ways that were halakhically permissible. One option, established by Hebrew day schools in response to an Orthodox preference for home- or school-based rituals for girls, was a group bat mitzvah celebration. Another choice was to hold a ceremony in the synagogue at a time when no prayer services were taking place. An alternative possibility was to celebrate the bat mitzvah at a separate women's prayer service during which a non-liturgical reading from the Torah could occur. Even in contemporary ḥasidic and ḥaredi communities some format for the recognition and celebration of a girl's initiation as an adult Jew now exists
The major impact of bat mitzvah celebrations has been to increase the level of women's Jewish education and synagogue ritual participation. By the first decade of the 21st century adult bat mitzvah ceremonies had also become a common occurrence in synagogues of all denominations.
Rabbi Moses *Feinstein forbids the use of the sanctuary for an official bat mitzvah. He does allow a special birthday kiddush in the sanctuary, adding that the girl may say some appropriate words there after services; he also permits some form of public celebration in synagogue social halls or in the family home. Rabbi J.J. *Weinberg recommends a modest home-based celebration to strengthen the girl's education and attachment to Jewish traditions. A number of 20th century rabbinic decisors, including Rabbi Y. *Nissim, (Noam 7:4), Rabbi Ovadiah *Yosef (Yabi'a Omer 6:29.4, Yehaveh Da'at 2:29, 3:10), and Rabbi Chanoch Grossberg (Ma'ayan, 13:42), assert that a se'udat mitsvah (obligatory festive meal) is held in honor of a girl's bat mitzvah on her birthday. Rabbi Abraham Musafiya, writing in the latter part of the 19th century (first printed in Noam 7 (5724, 1964) p. 4), claims that there is no difference between a boy and a girl in terms of the obligatory nature of the festive meal and that this festive meal is customarily held for boys and girls in France.
At the time of a bar mitzvah blessing a father traditionally says Barukh she-petarani me-onsho shel zeh, indicating that he has been released from responsibility for his son's acts. There is disagreement within Orthodox Judaism whether this blessing is also recited for a girl. Some decisors claim that a father cannot say it on the occasion of a bat mitzvah since he is not obligated to teach his daughter Torah. Others claim that the girl's coming of age at 12 years requires the same parental blessing as that for a boy at thirteen years. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef favorably quotes Rabbi A. Aburbia, who recommends saying the blessing without God's name (Yabi'a Omer OH 6:29, p. 98).
[Norma Baumel Joseph (2nd ed.)]
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Current Reform Responsa (1969), index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: BAT MITZVAH: J. Weissman Joselit, "Red-Letter Days," in: The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880–1950 (1994), 89–133; S. Barack Fishman, A Breath of Life (1993); C. Koller-Fox, "Women and Jewish Education: A New Look at Bat Mitzvah," in: E. Koltun (ed.), The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives (1976), 31–42; A.S. Cohen, "Celebration of the Bat Mitzvah," in: The Journal of Halakhah and Contemporary Society, 12 (Fall 1986), 5–16; B. Sherwin, "Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah," in: B. Sherwin, In Partnership With God: Contemporary Jewish Law and Ethics (1990); P.E. Hyman, "The Introduction of Bat Mitzva in Conservative Judaism in Postwar America," in: YIVO Annual, 19 (1990), 133–46; idem, "Bat Mitzvah," in: Hyman and Moore (eds.), Jewish Women in America, (1998) pp. 126–128; Erica Brown, "The Bat Mitzvah in Jewish Law and Contemporary Practice," in: M. Halpern and Ch. Safrai (eds.), Jewish Legal Writings by Women (1998), 228–54; L. Katz, "Halakhic Aspects of Bar-Mitzvah and Bat-Mitzvah," in: Journal of Jewish Music and Liturgy, 9 (1986), 22–30. I.G. Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage from Biblical to Modern Times (2004) 105–23; R. Stein, "The Road to Bat Mitzvah in America," in: P. Nadell and J. Sarna, Women and American Judaism, (2001), 223–34; S. Friedland Ben Arza (ed.), Bat Mitzvah: Collected Writings and Reflections (Heb., 2002). O. Wiskind Elper, Traditions and Celebrations for the Bat Mitzvah (2003); N. Joseph, "Ritual, Law, and Praxis: An American Response/a to Bat Mitsva Celebrations," in: Modern Judaism, 22:3 (Fall 2002); idem, "When Do I Get To Say Today I Am a Jew?" in: D. Orenstein (ed.), Lifecycles, vol. 1 (1994), 92–93; M. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (1988). A. Reiner, "The Attitude Towards Bat-Mitzvah Ceremonies – A Comparative Study of Contemporary Responsa," in: Netuim, 10 (2003), pp. 55–77.
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