A Rite of Passage
Dear Friend of The Fellowship,
The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony is one of the most widely celebrated events in Jewish life today. A boy becomes a bar mitzvah, meaning “son of the commandments,” at the age of 13; a girl becomes a bat mitzvah, or “daughter of the commandments,” at age 12. At that time the child is formally initiated into the Jewish community and becomes obligated to observe all the mitzvoth. And while prior to this, the parents were responsible for the child’s moral and religious behaviour, at bar/bat mitzvah the child assumes that responsibility as well as the other rights, privileges, and obligations of being a Jew.
The bar mitzvah celebration is conducted in the synagogue on the Sabbath following a boy’s 13th birthday when he is called up to the Torah for the first time. He recites a blessing in which he thanks God for giving the Torah to the Jewish people. He then reads the appropriate weekly portion from the Torah and Prophets.
The girl’s bat mitzvah ceremony usually takes place in the synagogue, too, although the degree of ritual participation permitted to women differs among the denominations. Orthodoxy prohibits women from being called up to the Torah (when men are present); however, Reform and most Conservative congregations permit it.
Despite its importance and widespread observance, the bar mitzvah celebration has no real precedent in either biblical or Talmudic literature, and it can be traced back only as far as the 15th century. The bat mitzvah celebration, which originated in France and Italy in the 19th century, still often lacks the import of the bar mitzvah even among many of those who, in fact, celebrate it. Nevertheless, the fact that boys become obligated to observe the commandments at 13 and girls become responsible at 12 is alluded to in the Talmud. The Talmud states, for example, that vows made by 13-year-old boys and 12-year-old girls take effect upon them, not their parents. Moreover, it states that at those ages children become obligated to observe the Jewish fast days. Thus, while the formal bar/bat mitzvah ceremony is of relatively recent vintage, the underlying principle that the child then becomes fully responsible for observing the Torah is, in fact, at least 1,500 years old.
The other major ritual associated with the bar mitzvah is the donning of tefillin, or “phylacteries.” From the time of bar mitzvah, boys are obligated to wear tefillin every day during morning prayers (except on Shabbat and festivals) for the rest of their lives. They may even lead the services and read from the Torah on behalf of the congregation. They are Jewish adults in the fullest sense of the term.
The occasion of the bar/bat mitzvah marks the time when a Jewish child personally and voluntarily reaffirms his commitment to the covenant and his responsibility to observe the mitzvoth. The child is then granted the equal right to participate in every facet of synagogue life and, indeed, in all the religious expressions of the community.
These rituals mark a turning point in life for both young Jewish men and women. They signify their ongoing devotion to God, and to a way of life that will continue to turn their hearts toward Him. We thank God for these moments that signify not just our devotion to Him, but His sovereignty over the entire world.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
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