Bar & Bat Mitzvah and the Shabbat

January 8, 2016

Every week, Jody Hirsh, the JCC's Judaic Education Director, provides a Judaic message that is featured at the top of the JCC's weekly email newsletter. Below is the Shabbat message for Friday, January 8, 2016.

Bar & Bat Mitzvah and the Shabbat

For most people, Jew and Non-Jew alike, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony is associated with the Shabbat. Families and guests arrive in synagogue to watch the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child read from the Torah, or give a speech, or both. The ceremony is most frequently followed by a “Seudat Mitzvah” (a “commandment banquet”) and often there is a party in on Saturday night.  Most people, however, would be surprised to learn that in antiquity, there was NO Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony.  None. We think of the age of 13, the age of Bar Mitzvah, to be a coming of age. In the book of Numbers in the Torah, however, we see the age of adulthood is, in fact, 20 years old, not 13! So what is this Bar Mitzvah thing?

The term itself is enlightening. The word “Mitzvah” means “commandment.” There are 613 commandments in the Torah [365 Thou Shalt Nots, and 248 Thou Shalts]. From the rabbinic period 2000 years ago, a boy was considered adult enough to be required to follow the commandments at age 13! The girls were actually required to follow fewer commandments, and the traditional age of a girl’s “adulthood” is 12. Bar means son... Bat means daughter. Therefore Bar Mitzvah means  “Son of the Commandment” and Bat Mitzvah means “Daughter of the Commandment.” A person becomes the Son or Daughter of the Commandment automatically when they become of age. It actually takes NO ceremony to make someone Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah. The Bar Mitzvah is actually the kid at this stage of life, not a ceremony! It sometimes tickles me when people use “Bar Mitzvah” as a verb... as in, “My nephew was Bar Mitzvahed last Saturday.” Wrong. It should be, “My nephew became a Bar Mitzvah last Saturday.”  There have been Bar Mitzvah ceremonies, however, since the Middle Ages. When a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah/ the son of the commandment, he often would mark this life cycle event by actually performing a commandment and reading from the Torah in the synagogue on the Shabbat following his 13th birthday. And – if a family wanted to mark this coming of age, it didn’t have to be on a Shabbat... it could be on a Monday or Thursday when the Torah was also read publicly, or on a holiday or new moon. Although especially in modernity, we have made a big deal over the “ceremony” with friends and relatives coming from out of town to celebrate on the weekend: therefore, so the Shabbat is a perfect time.

Although the Bar Mitzvah ceremony has been a commonplace ever since the Middle Ages, the Bat Mitzvah is a pretty new invention. In the traditional Jewish world, girls aren’t required to observe the same number of commandments as men, so girls were never called up to read the Torah. All that changed, however, back in 1922 when Judith, the daughter Rabbi Morecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, had the first Bat Mitzvah ceremony in history! Often, today, Orthodox Jews commemorate a girl’s coming of age, not necessarily with reading the Torah, but giving a “drashah” or sermon in the synagogue, often at lunch rather than during the Shabbat Prayers. Reform and Conservative Judaism, however, have followed the lead of Judith Kaplan and created Bat Mitzvah events that are parallel in every way to the Bar Mitzvah.

And, of course, the most common day to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony and celebration is on Shabbat.

 Shabbat Shalom.