Why Celebrate the Bar and
Bat Mitzvah at 12 and 13?
A Conservative Perspective
by Rivka C. Berman
At which exact moment does a child
become an adult? Since some people never reach psychological adulthood (such as
the bozos who honk and holler when they lose out on a parking spot), physical
maturity was chosen as the mark of adulthood for all. Puberty generally begins
in the early teen years, thus bar mitzvah age was set at thirteen years plus one
Since this doesnt fully explain why thirteen is the chosen year, midrashic
sources credit Moses with choosing age thirteen as the bar mitzvah year. There
are other instances that Moses is said to have spoken the nature of Jewish
practice at Sinai without jotting it down in the Torah. For example, Moses
described how tefillin should look as their appearance is not described in the
Torah. Jews have been wearing uniform-looking leather boxes ever since.
Special emotional maturity enough to be regarded as a bar mitzvah, according to
at least one halachic opinion. Specifically, a boy who lost a parent would be
eligible for his bar mitzvah anytime after his twelfth birthday. (Girls
traditionally reached bat mitzvah at age twelve.) A child who loses a parent
reckons with adulthood early on.
Other cultures avoid the number thirteen. Witch covens, apparently, form around
the presence of twelve practitioners plus the devil, because black magic thrives
on this number. Fear of the number thirteen pervades our culture, and even has a
phobia associated with it. Skyscrapers are sometimes built without a thirteenth
floor. Street numbers would be set to skip the address thirteen (the old
television show The Munsters featured a monster family who lived at 1313
Mockingbird Lane at the fictional Muckingbird Heights.
Judaism regards the number thirteen differently. Thirteen denotes positive
attributes in the age of a boy, in moral conduct, and in the tenets of faith in
God. For example:
A Jewish male child transitions to adulthood at Thirteen.
God is said to have thirteen attributes of mercy. (Exodus 34:6-7)
Maimonides, a twelfth century Torah philosopher, scholar who was a
court physician on the side, ascribed thirteen principles to the Jewish faith.
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