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Evolution of the Bar Mitzvah
Conservative Perspective 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 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 wrongdoing.

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 107a)

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.

c. 1800
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.

c. 1922
Judith Kaplan is the first girl to read her Torah portion from the bima.

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