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What is a Mitzvah?

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What is a Mitzvah?

Bar Mitzvah - Bat Mitzvah and Judaism Resources

"Bar Mitzvah" literally means "son of the commandment." "Bar" is "son" in Aramaic, which used to be the vernacular of the Jewish people. "Mitzvah" is "commandment" in both Hebrew and Aramaic. "Bat" is daughter in Hebrew and Aramaic. (The Ashkenazic pronunciation is "bas") (Bar Mitzvah & Bat Mitzvah History)

Under Jewish Law , children are not obligated to observe the commandments, although they are encouraged to do so as much as possible to learn the obligations they will have as adults. At the age of 13 (12 for girls), children become obligated to observe the commandments. The Bar Mitzvah ceremony formally marks the assumption of that obligation, along with the corresponding right to take part in leading religious services, to count in a minyan (the minimum number of people needed to perform certain parts of religious services), to form binding contracts, to testify before religious courts and to marry.

A Jewish boy automatically becomes a Bar Mitzvah upon reaching the age of 13 years. No ceremony is needed to confer these rights and obligations. The popular bar mitzvah ceremony is not required, and does not fulfill any commandment. It is a relatively modern innovation, not mentioned in the Talmud, and the elaborate ceremonies and receptions that are commonplace today were unheard of as recently as a century ago.

In its earliest and most basic form, a Bar Mitzvah is the celebrant's first aliyah. During Shabbat services on a Saturday shortly after the child's 13th birthday, the celebrant is called up to the Torah to recite a blessing over the weekly reading.

Today, it is common practice for the Bar Mitzvah celebrant to do much more than just say the blessing. It is most common for the celebrant to learn the entire haftarah portion, including its traditional chant, and recite that. In some congregations, the celebrant reads the entire weekly torah portion, or leads part of the service, or leads the congregation in certain important prayers. The celebrant is also generally required to make a speech, which traditionally begins with the phrase "today I am a man." The father recites a blessing thanking G-d for removing the burden of being responsible for the son's sins.

In modern times, the religious service is followed by a reception that is often as elaborate as a wedding reception.

In Orthodox and Chasidic practice, women are not permitted to participate in religious services in these ways, so a bat mitzvah, if celebrated at all, is usually little more than a party. In other movements of Judaism, the girls do exactly the same thing as the boys.

It is important to note that a bar mitzvah is not the goal of a Jewish education, nor is it a graduation ceremony marking the end of a person's Jewish education. We are obligated to study Torah throughout our lives. To emphasize this point, some rabbis require a bar mitzvah student to sign an agreement promising to continue Jewish education after the bar mitzvah.

The Reform movement tried to do away with the Bar Mitzvah for a while, scorning the idea that a 13 year old child was an adult. They replaced it with a confirmation at the age of 16 or 18. However, due to the overwhelming popularity of the ceremonies, the Reform movement has revived the practice. I don't know of any Reform synagogues that do not encourage the practice of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs today. In some Conservative synagogues, however, the confirmation practice continues as a way to keep children involved in Jewish education for a few more years.

The age set for bar mitzvah is not an outdated notion based on the needs of an agricultural society, as some suggest. This criticism comes from a misunderstanding of the significance of the bar mitzvah. Bar mitzvah is not about being a full adult in every sense of the word, ready to marry, go out on your own, earn a living and raise children. The Talmud makes this abundantly clear. In Pirkei Avot, it is said that while 13 is the proper age for fulfillment of the Commandments, 18 is the proper age for marriage and 20 is the proper age for earning a livelihood. Elsewhere in the Talmud, the proper age for marriage is said to be 16-24. Bar mitzvah is simply the age when a person is held responsible for his actions and minimally qualified to marry.

If you compare this to secular law, you will find that it is not so very far from our modern notions of a child's maturity. In Anglo-American common law, a child of the age of 14 is old enough to assume many of the responsibilities of an adult, including minimal criminal liability. In many states, a fourteen year old can marry with parental consent. Children of any age are permitted to testify in court, and children over the age of 14 are permitted to have significant input into custody decisions in cases of divorce. 


History of the Mitzvah


Throughout history, many groups of people have had rituals to celebrate the time when a boy becomes a man, and a girl becomes a woman.  For Jewish people, these rituals are called Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah.  Bar Mitzvah is the Hebrew phrase meaning "son of the commandment," and Bat Mitzvah means "daughter of the commandment."  Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah means that a boy or girl has become an adult, and is fully responsible for his or her morals and religious duties.  It also means that he or she has become a full-fledged member of the Jewish community, and must follow the rules of Jewish life - the commandments.

Both rituals are usually held in the Jewish temple, or synagogue, and are followed by a party to celebrate.  Family, friends, and members of the synagogue come to celebrate the young person's coming of age.

During Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, the boy or girl actively participates in the ceremony - reading prayers and giving his or her own personal speech.  It is a chance for the young people to express themselves as individuals.  Often, a Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah are essentially the same, and follow the same format.

However, the form of the ceremony may vary, depending on the branch of Judaism and the young adult.  Some Jewish boys and girls may not even have a formal ceremony at all.  Contrary to what many believe, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony did not originate from the Bible.  It grew out of the need for boys to celebrate their coming of age, long before the Jewish religion existed.  Historians and sociologists have discovered evidence of such rites of passage in ancient tribes and cultures all over the globe.  The modern Bar Mitzvah has evolved and grown from these early rituals.

Ancient coming-of-age rituals usually involved some sort of initiation.  In some tribes, a young boy had to hunt, cook, and eat a large animal in order to be initiated.  Others had to endure tests of strength, speed, or skill to prove they had become a man.  As the Jewish religion grew, similar initiation ceremonies were probably common.  Eventually however, the emphasis changed to that of a spiritual coming-of-age rather than a physical one.

Historians also found that ancient initiations usually occurred when a boy was between the ages of twelve and fourteen, as he reached maturity.  Similarly, rabbis fixed the age of responsibility for Jewish boys at age thirteen during the Middle Ages.  Even though there was no Bar Mitzvah in the early days, age thirteen marked a significant turning point into adulthood.

In ancient times, boys were encouraged to begin studying the Bible as soon as they learned to read, often as early as age five.  Boys who were advanced in their religious studies were allowed to take part in religious services, even before they reached thirteen.  Since there were no rules against it, children were encouraged to live up to the commandments as soon as they could understand them and take part in religious services.  By the time a boy turned thirteen, it was not an option to follow the commandments, it was an expectation.

On a boy's thirteenth birthday, he was taken to an elder rabbi and blessed.  Typically, the rabbi would pray with the boy, ask that he remember the commandments and encourage him to do good deeds.  Although this birthday was considered a major turning point in a boy's life, there wasn't a need to hold a special ceremony like a modern Bar Mitzvah since he had likely been taking part in religious services for years.  

Over time, the Jewish community began to change their attitude about children taking part in religious services.  They felt that children were too young to take an adult role in the synagogue.  By the Middle Ages, the participation of young children in religious services and ceremonies was strongly discouraged.  Gradually, the custom of waiting until a boy turned thirteen became accepted.

With this acceptance, a boy's thirteenth birthday became an important occasion in his life.  When he turned thirteen, he was allowed to take part in a religious service for the first time.  This coming-of-age event seemed to call for a special ceremony, which eventually grew more significant and elaborate  Today, the modern Bar Mitzvah ceremony is celebrated on the Sabbath, the day of rest, coinciding with or immediately following his thirteenth birthday.  The Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and lasts until nightfall on Saturday.

Unlike boys, there inst a long history of coming-of-age rituals for girls.  Rather, the idea of such a ceremony for girls, called a bat mitzvah, developed as the Bar Mitzvah became popular in Europe for boys.  Historians discovered evidence that families began honoring their daughters with a special meal for their twelfth birthday in countries such as France, Italy and Germany about 200 years ago.  

Since girls physically mature at an earlier age than boys, twelve, not thirteen was the age chosen for a Jewish girl's passage into adulthood. 

Gradually, the idea of a bat mitzvah became more popular and spread across Europe.  However, it wasn't until 1922 that  the first bat mitzvah in North America was celebrated.  At the time, Jewish women were struggling for a voice in the synagogue just as women across the nation were fighting for their rights as citizens.  Because the bat mitzvah gave Jewish women a voice, it was a controversial event that many traditional Jews did not accept.  Not all branches of Judaism allowed women to be involved in prayer, and thus did not support the idea of a bat mitzvah.

Even as the idea of a bat mitzvah spread and became more popular, it was not widely accepted.  Most Jewish girls did no t have an opportunity to become a bat mitzvah in a synagogue ceremony until the 1950's, or later.  Age-old Jewish traditions were, in part, responsible for hindering the advancement of the bat mitzvah.  Throughout history, Jewish women had a separate and much less active role in prayer than men.  A woman's position was in the home, rather than the synagogue, and most synagogues had separate sections for women to sit.  

Even today, women sit apart from men in Orthodox congregations.  Only in other branches of the Jewish religion, such as Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform Judaism, do men and women sit together.

An early bat mitzvah usually followed the same format as a Bar Mitzvah because young girls did not have any female role models to look up to.  Their mothers and grandmothers did not have the same opportunity, and there weren't any female rabbis to look up to until the 1970's.  Today, young Jewish women have more freedom to express themselves at a bat mitzvah.  Since the coming-of-age ceremony does not have a long history, young women are not bound by age-old traditions like young Jewish men.

The bat mitzvah is still a relatively new idea that continues to evolve.  The modern bat mitzvah varies depending on a young woman's congregation.  In many synagogues, a girl prepares for her bat mitzvah in the same way that a boy gets ready for his Bar Mitzvah.  In other Jewish communities, the ceremony is very different, and in some there is not a ceremony at all.

Furthermore, many women who were not allowed to have a bat mitzvah when they were younger, choose to have one as an adult.  Often, such women choose to do this in groups after studying together for an extended period of time.



This article courtesy of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guide 2003.

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Last modified: September 24, 2013