A BRIEF HISTORY OF BAR/BAT MITZVAH
Moses never had a Bar Mitzvah! The ceremony simply did not exist in biblical times. Indeed, the Torah considers the age of twenty, not thirteen, as the threshold of adulthood.
No one person invented the idea of Bar Mitzvah. The first reference to thirteen as the age of mitzvot is found in the Mishnah, the first part of the Talmud (Avot 5:24). The rabbis of antiquity, however, did not clearly delineate between pre and post-Bar Mitzvah responsibility. Generally a child began to observe individual ritual commandments when he showed an understanding and ability to do so – regardless of age.
Until the medieval period, minors often wore tefillin, were called to the Torah for aliyot, and, except for a few special Sabbaths on the calendar, were permitted to chant the haftarah.
For a variety of reasons, some still the subject of debate, by the late Middle Ages those under the age of thirteen no longer performed these precepts. Because minors no longer engaged in such ritual activities, they became the defining aspects of arrival at the age of Jewish maturity.
In the sixteenth century, we find the earliest reference to calling a boy to the Torah on the Shabbat that coincided with or followed his thirteenth birthday. It is here that we find the roots of the life cycle event we know today.
Unlike a brit milah or the religious requirements of a Jewish wedding, participation in a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony is not a commandment. One automatically becomes a Jewish adult simply by attaining the age of thirteen on the Hebrew calendar. An individual over the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah is no less a Jewish adult, even without the ceremony.
Until fairly recently, a girl’s arrival at Jewish adulthood was not ritually observed. The first modern Bat Mitzvah ceremony took place in North America in the spring of 1922. It was celebrated by Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist stream of Judaism. Today, the observance of Bat Mitzvah in one form or another is common throughout the Jewish world, even within many Orthodox communities.
Jewish law established the age of maturity for girls as twelve and one day in recognition of the fact that they mature more quickly than boys do. As many egalitarian synagogues do, we generally schedule the celebration of B’not Mitzvah around the time of a girl’s thirteenth birthday for the sake of keeping classes together and to ensure the completion of religious educational requirements.
Until a generation or two ago, the celebration of Bar Mitzvah was rather low key. A child would be called for an aliyah on the first Torah reading day that followed his thirteenth birthday, whether on a Monday, Thursday, or Shabbat morning. On weekdays, those present might drink a l’hayim to the family’s health and eat a piece of cake before going to work. In all likelihood, the Bar Mitzvah boy would attend school after the morning service. There certainly was none of the elaborate planning and preparation that often accompanies contemporary celebrations of the event.
Critics of the manner in which B’nei Mitzvah are observed today point to the excesses of certain celebrations and the manner in which the event can become little more than an excuse to indulge in conspicuous consumption. With some justification, they rue the fact that at times the “bar” all but eclipses the mitzvah. It is important for youngsters and parents to remember that the ultimate litmus test of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah’s success has nothing to do with the cost of the party, but the extent to which the event represents a spiritual rite of passage in an individual’s life.
This life cycle event nevertheless offers tremendous opportunities for involvement and education both for the child and his/her family. Bar/Bat Mitzvah presents an unparalleled chance to bring youngsters into intensive and sustained contact with the synagogue and its programming. The Jewish community must continue to seek ways to take advantage of this life cycle event’s potential as a powerful tool to promote Jewish identity.