of the Bar Mitzvah
by Rivka C. Berman
Back at the beginning of Jewish history, when Jews were already celebrating the
holidays we would recognize: Shabbat, Rosh Hashannah and Sukkot, they were not
having bar mitzvah parties.
c. 350 B.C.E. – 70 C.E.
Here’s how the bar/bat mitzvah tradition began… During the second Temple period,
boys who completed their first Yom Kippur fast were blessed by the elders of the
c. 200 C.E.
The Mishna, the nucleus of halacha, is written down around this time. In
Avot 5:22, thirteen is the year set aside as the time of when one is obligated
to perform mitzvot. During this period, a boy who reached thirteen was granted
several legal rights. He could be a member of a Jewish court, could buy and sell
real estate, and his vows were considered binding.
c. 200-500 C.E.
As the Gemara (Talmud) was being compiled, the phrase “bar mitzvah” was used just twice.
And it didn’t refer to a coming of age celebration, because in this era boys
could be called up to the Torah even as minors (Megilla 23a). In the Gemara’s
context, “bar mitzvah” meant someone who observes the commandments. Thirteen was
significant as the “bar onshin” the age a boy was held accountable for civil
In the discussions of the Gemara, a girl was considered a ketana, a minor, from
ages 3-12. Between 12 and 12 ˝ a girl became a ne’ara, a young woman, and any
vow she made from then on was valid. From 12 ˝ onward a girl was termed a
bogeret, and was responsible to perform the mitzvot. (Sota 47a,
c. 1100 C.E.
Aliyah, being called up to the Torah, which is now regarded as one of the basic
privileges of reaching bar mitzvah age, was not always associated with turning
thirteen. A boy could be given an aliyah once he understood the significance of
what he was doing, according to Maimonides, a twelfth century Torah commentator
and preeminent halachic authority.
Among Syrian Jews there is no set age for a first aliyah, but it is expected to
take place before a boy reaches thirteen years and one day, but most Syrian Jews
do not receive an aliyah until they are at least twelve years and six months
c. 1200 C.E.
Until this time, a minor could wear tefillin as soon as he could be trusted to
treat them respectfully. (Tefillin are leather boxes that contain parchment
scrolls inscribed with Torah passages. During most morning prayer services, one
is bound to the forehead and another to the upper arm.) In what is now known as
Germany, the rules changed and a boy had to reach thirteen before wearing
c. 1300-1500 C.E.
Bar Mitzvah eases itself into its modern definition during these centuries.
Young boys are no longer counted as part of the minyan or called up to the
Torah. A thirteenth birthday meant beginning to participate in these rituals,
and the day became a cause for celebration. To demonstrate their new maturity,
boys began delivering speeches about the Torah portion. (The dreaded “speech” is
c. 1600-1700 C.E.
Boys are granted an additional perk. Once they hit bar mitzvah age, they may
lead prayer services.
In Spain and Portugal where the Inquisition lead to the outward conversion of
many Jews to Catholicism, it became traditional to tell children about their
secret Jewish heritage once they reached the age of bar or bat mitzvah.
Here to Search For
Bar & Bat Mitzvah Service