History of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Rabbi John L. Rosove

Bar mitzvah (literally, “son of the commandment”) and bat mitzvah (literally, “daughter of the commandment”)  are the titles given to all Jews who reach the age of 13, regardless of whether or not they have studied to commemorate the occasion with a ritual, ceremony, or celebration. Jewish tradition dictates that at 13, young people assume personal responsibility to live a moral and religious life and to be accountable for their actions separate from their parents. Status as a bar or bat mitzvah entitles one to be counted in a minyan, receive an aliyah, and chant Torah. A young person becomes bar or bat mitzvah. He does not “get bar mitzvahed” nor does she “have a bat mitzvah.”

A Brief History of Bar Mitzvah

According to the Mishnah (2nd century C.E.), a boy is ready for bar mitzvah once his father has fulfilled certain obligations.  These include circumcising him, entering him into the covenant of Abraham, and teaching him Torah, a craft, and to swim, as well as finding him a bride (Kiddushin 29a). Sometime in the 4th century C.E., for the first time, a 13-year-old boy received an aliyah to the reading desk on the bimah on a given Shabbat to read verses of Torah. After 500 C.E., boys younger than 13 were called for an aliyah and occasionally laid tefillin (bound small leather boxes containing Torah verses to their forehead, arm, and hand during worship) so they could learn what they  would be required to do upon reaching 13. Until that age, religious practice is voluntary; at 13, the mitzvot become obligatory.

Mordecai ben Hillel (Cited by Moses Isserles to Tur, O.Ch 225:1) used the term “bar mitzvah” for the first time in the 14th century. During the later Middle Ages (16th and 17th centuries, Germany and Eastern Europe), “laying tefillin” and receiving an aliyah became the most important features of bar mitzvah.  It also became customary for the family to sponsor a party – at home or in the synagogue – following the ceremony.  In Poland, the bar mitzvah gave a d’rash (interpretation) of the Torah portion of the week or, for more talented and bright students, on a matter of Talmudic law. Boys with pleasant singing voices were encouraged to chant Torah.  Those with exceptional voices also led the community in worship.

A Brief History of Bat Mitzvah

On March 18, 1922, Judith Kaplan, the 13-year-old daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, became the first young girl to celebrate her bat mitzvah in America.  The ceremony, at which she recited the blessings and read from the Torah in both Hebrew and English, took place at her father’s synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York City. Despite Judith’s pioneering role, the bat mitzvah ceremony did not become commonplace until the 1970s.

Today, in Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaism, girls and women have the same religious rights and obligations as boys and men.  As such, b’not mitzvah (plural of bat mitzvah) read Torah, lead services, and offer divrei Torah publicly in synagogue.  In recent years, the role of women in Orthodox synagogue life has changed and today, some modern Orthodox communities hold women’s minyanim at which girls read publicly from the Torah.

Second Bar and Bat Mitzvah

According to the Torah, the normal human lifespan is 70 years, so some people, upon reaching 83, consider themselves to be 13 in a second lifetime and celebrate a second bar or bat mitzvah at that age. As was done the first time, they are called to the Torah as an aliyah and may offer their own divrei Torah.

Adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah

Today, many synagogues offer study opportunities leading to b’nai mitzvah for those who did not celebrate becoming bar or bat mitzvah at 13 – either because they converted to Judaism as adults, were born as Jews, but had little Jewish education when they were young, or are women who grew up before b’not mitzvah were commonplace.  Synagogue classes often include the study of Judaism, Jewish values and thought, Hebrew, liturgy, and Torah. After a period of study, a celebration is scheduled for an upcoming Shabbat morning. The adult b’nai mitzvah students are called to the Torah for the first time – to recite the blessings, chant verses from Torah, offer an interpretation of the parashah, explain prayers, and assist in leading the Shabbat morning service.

Giving Tzedakah

It is a Jewish custom to give tzedakah at both joyful and sad lifecycle events, as well as before Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Bar and bat mitzvah candidates often are encouraged to fulfill this commandment by donating at least 10 percent (up to 20 percent, according to tradition) of what they receive as gifts to causes about which they care. Based on the principle of Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh (“All of Israel is responsible one to another”) some of the tzedakahcan be donated to Jewish causes.

Private Bar and Bat Mitzvah Ceremonies

The bar bat mitzvah ceremony is a public affirmation of a young Jew entering the Covenant of the Jewish People of Israel through Torah that began at Mount Sinai. Conducting such ceremonies without the presence and participation of the Jewish community-at-large reduces this public rite to a private family affair. Although such events can be joyful, they reflect an impulse that is foreign to Judaism, which instead emphasizes the duties and responsibilities of the individual to K’lal Yisrael (the community of Israel), especially at the time of the bar or bat mitzvah. Certainly, the home plays an important role in perpetuating Jewish life, but the bar or bat mitzvah as a rite of passage is decidedly a public one and does not belong in the home. In this spirit, the Talmud reminds us: “Al tifros min hatzibur” (“Do not separate yourself from the community.”)

B’nai Mitzvah Ceremonies During Mourning

In the event that a death in the family occurs close to the upcoming bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, tradition dictates that it should not be held between the death and the funeral. There is no reason to cancel it if it is scheduled to take place after the burial. The festivities, however, should be subdued. Some families may opt to retain the religious ceremony of being called to the Torah but postpone the celebration until a later date. You may wish to consult with clergy for assistance at such a difficult time.

Bar Mitzvah for an Uncircumcised Boy

In Reform Judaism, children born of a Jewish parent (mother or father) who through timely and public acts of identification (e.g., brit milah for boys and baby naming for girls, Jewish education, bar or bat mitzvah) live their lives exclusively as Jews are considered Jewish. Although circumcision does not create Jewish identity, it is a near universal practice among Jews. Nonetheless, if a boy is not circumcised, he may still become bar mitzvah.

A Bar or Bat Mitzvah for a Child with no Hebrew Name

If a child was not given a Hebrew name at birth, becoming bar or bat mitzvah is an appropriate opportunity to take a Hebrew name. Consult with clergy for guidance.

Further Reading

This article was excerpted from the booklet Becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah and is part of the series Transitions & Celebrations: Jewish Life Cycle Guides, by Rabbi John L. Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, CA. Download this booklet and the full series on the Temple Israel of Hollywood website (see Writings by Rabbi Rosove).