of Bar Mitzvah & Bat 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 and bat mitzvah parties.
Biblical Thirteen Year Olds
Midrashic accounts of the thirteen-year-old biblical figures are rife with
drama. Abraham turned thirteen and broke idols, beginning his turn to
monotheism. Both of his grandsons, Jacob and Esau, studied until age thirteen.
Afterward, Jacob devoted himself to further study, while Esau worshipped at
“foreign shrines.” (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 25:27). Two of Jacob’s twelve sons,
Simeon and Levi, wreaked havoc when they were thirteen, decimating the male
population of the city of Shechem (Midrash on Genesis 34:25). Later when it came
time to build the portable Temple in the desert, the thirteen-year-old Betzalel
was chosen as chief artist/architect. Centuries later the menacing giant Goliath
was felled by thirteen-year-old David’s well-aimed stone. His son, Shlomo,
became king and according to the Midrash, guess how old he was!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 Jewish people.
c. 200 C.E.
While the Mishna, the collection of Jewish halachic traditions, was being
created, the thirteenth year of life was notable as the age of fulfillment of
mitzvot. Until that year, a child is not responsible to fulfill the mitzvot (Mishna
Avot 5:22). During that period, a boy who reached that age 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 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
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, Sanhedrin
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 commentator on the
Torah, as well as a royal physician and philosopher.
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 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 tefillin.
c. 1300-1500 C.E.
Bar Mitzvah eases itself into its modern definition during these centuries. 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 born.)
c. 1600-1700 C.E.
Boys were granted an additional perk. Once they hit bar mitzvah age, they could
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.
In France and Italy girls begin to deliver Torah talks about their portion at
their bat mitzvah celebrations, which they celebrate at twelve years old.
Halachic tradition views girls reaching adulthood earlier than boys because they
tend to physically mature at younger age.
Judith Kaplan is the first girl to read her Torah portion from the bima.
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Bar & Bat Mitzvah Service