Bar and Bat Mitzvah: Facts, History, Differences and Prayer

What Does a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Symbolize?

Bar and Bat mitzvah mark the way of each Jewish child along the road to adulthood. This milestone marks the moment when a Jewish young person assumes his or her place in the Jewish community.

Bar mitzvah literally translates as “son of the commandment” (Bar is Aramaic for “son”), and bat mitzvah (pronounced bas mitzvah by the Ashkenazim) means “daughter of the commandment,” since Bat is Hebrew and Aramaic for “daughter.

According to Jewish law, children should be taught the ways of Judaism. They are encouraged to observe as many of the rituals and obligations as they can, but they are not required to comply with the mitzvot until they become adults—until the bar or bat mitzvah. Once they become adults in the eyes of Jewish law, the duty arises to abide by God’s commandments.

What is The Main Significance of The bar/bat Mitzvah?

Possibly the most pervasive misunderstanding Jews have about Judaism is the notion that in order to become a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, they must do so in a ceremony conducted in the synagogue. This error results from a misreading of what bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah mean.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah Differences

In Judaism, there is no option of deciding whether or not to be bound to the commandments. It is a responsibility that comes with the covenant God made with Abraham and the Jews for all generations to follow. It is automatic. At the age of thirteen, a boy becomes a bar mitzvah. From then on, he is expected to keep the mitzvot Jewish men are required to fulfill.

At the age of twelve, a girl becomes a bat mitzvah, which means that she is now obligated to carry out the mitzvot pertaining to Jewish women. (The reason girls assume this responsibility at a younger age probably has to do with the fact that girls mature faster than boys at this time of their lives.)
Again, no ceremony is required in the case of either gender. Rituals and practices are not needed—the festive party that is common today is just an added bonus.

Bar Mitzvah Rights

Becoming a bar mitzvah also confers certain rights under Jewish law. (Some of these laws may also apply to girls who are bat mitzvah, depending upon the branch of Judaism involved.) These rights include the following:

• The right to participate in or lead a religious service
• The right to count toward a minyan
• The right to enter into binding contracts
• The right to provide testimony in religious courts

While the ages of twelve and thirteen for a girl and boy respectively mean they are adults insofar as fulfilling mitzvot, this does not suggest that young people are adults in every sense of the word. For example, according to Jewish law, marriage should take place no earlier than at sixteen years of age, and the suitable age to enter the work force is considered to be twenty.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ceremony

Although a specific ceremony is not required for becoming a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah, a ceremony that celebrates this rite of passage does exist. It generally takes place after the boy or girl has completed several years of Hebrew and Judaic studies.

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Bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah ceremonies are beautiful events that mark an important occasion in a young person’s life.

The bar mitzvah ceremony is not mentioned in the Bible or the Talmud, and the practice probably has its origins in the Middle Ages. Because the ceremony does not actually denote when a young man becomes a bar mitzvah, it can occur anytime after his thirteenth birthday If studies and preparation have not been completed, it is wise to postpone the ritual.

Because there are no mitzvot governing the ceremony, practices vary among the respective movements in Judaism and even from congregation to congregation. However, some common elements usually occur.

Bar mitzvah Prayer

Probably the oldest and most universal aspect of the ritual is that it takes place during a Shabbat service soon after the boy’s thirteenth birthday. During that morning, the young man is called to the Torah to recite a blessing and the weekly Torah reading.

In more recent years, the bar mitzvah generally chants the Haftorah (the concluding reading from the Prophetic section of the Bible). The bar mitzvah may read the entire Torah portion, conduct part of the service, lead the congregation in selected prayers, or make a speech.

Furthermore, the rabbi may speak to the bar mitzvah boy about the significance of the occasion, and the congregation may present the boy with gifts such as books or ritual items. When the service is concluded, a feast or party often follows.

Unless the bar mitzvah is an Ashkenazic Orthodox Jew, the bar mitzvah ceremony will mark the first time he wears a tallit (ceremonial prayer shawl). Ashkenazic Orthodox men do not wear the tallit until they get married.

Bar Mitzvah History

The first bat mitzvah ceremony took place on Saturday morning, March 18, 1922. On that Shabbat, Judith Kaplan, the twelve-year-old daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (the founder of Reconstructionism—see number 13), stepped up to the bimah of her father’s synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York. She recited the preliminary blessing and read from the Torah. This was a startling, bold, and innovative event designed to support Mordecai Kaplan’s objective for Jewish women to have equal standing with Jewish men.

Over the next two decades, few women participated in the bat mitzvah ceremonies, probably because the Reconstructionist movement did not grow substantially until the late 1960s. The Conservative movement actually became responsible for the growing popularity of the bat mitzvah ceremony.

The Reform movement did not play an active role in this issue for the simple reason that it was questioning the necessity of even having this type of ceremony—whether bar or bat mitzvah—in the first place. In the Reform movement, some boys and girls underwent a confirmation ceremony (as described later in number 89).

As of 1940, only a handful of Conservative congregations had adopted bat mitzvah rituals, but by the end of that decade, more than a third of the movement’s member synagogues had established the ceremony. A mere twenty years later, this practice was the norm among Conservative congregations. However, during the formative years of this ceremony, the bat mitzvah did not read from the Torah and even today, some Conservative synagogues still refrain from this practice.

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By the 1950s, only a third of Reform temples conducted a bat mitzvah ceremony, but a decade later it was widespread within the movement. Today, in Reform and Reconstructionist congregations alike, the bat mitzvah sings the blessings and reads from the Torah portion—the ceremony is essentially the same as a bar mitzvah.

Among the Orthodox, there is no similar type of bat mitzvah ceremony in the synagogue since women are not called to the Torah. However, many Orthodox do celebrate the occasion of a girl becoming a bat mitzvah with a festive party or some type of ceremony.

Seudat Bar Mitzvah

Following the religious bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, family and friends have a celebration called a seudat mitzvah—a feast that celebrates the fulfillment of a commandment. Although in this case the commandment was attained automatically when theSeudat Bar Mitzvah young person reached the appropriate age (and not by way of the ceremony), a celebration is still in order.

The bar or bat mitzvah feast should be an opportunity to impress upon young men and women the responsibilities and obligations to fulfill the commandments that accompany reaching this milestone in their lives. The decorum ought to reflect the seriousness of the occasion. A meal is always appropriate, and there can be festive dancing and music. But this should also be a time for discussions about subjects of Jewish interest, particularly with the new son or daughter of the commandment in mind.

When it comes to bar and bat mitzvah extravaganzas, one-upmanship has become almost routine. This is true, albeit to varying extents, for all the branches of Judaism. Although bar and bat mitzvah galas were unheard of a hundred years ago, such spectacles have frequently become the focus in contemporary American society.

What messages do such displays convey to the new son or daughter of the commandment? Do such affairs add to or detract from the mitzvah they are meant to celebrate? Can something better or more appropriate be done? People are beginning to ponder such issues.

Clearly, there are many options and activities that can underscore and complement what it means to become a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. Lavish affairs do not do this. Tzedakah (charity) does.

These days, more and more Jews are adhering to the concept of tikkun olam (repair of the world) and are making this part of the bar and bat mitzvah parties and feasts.

For example, why not deliver the party’s leftover floral arrangements to a senior citizen home or a hospital? How about making sure all that extra food is sent to a homeless shelter? And speaking of the homeless and the poor, what about asking guests to bring canned food and used clothing that can be distributed to those in need? Why not arrange to have a tree planted in Israel in honor of every person who is called to light a candle on the bar or bat mitzvah cake? And what better way to stress the importance of mitzvot that require giving to those less fortunate than by setting aside a portion of the gifts received and donating them to charities the young man or woman selects?

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Some people believe that rather than spending many thousands of dollars for an affair that’s over in one night, the funds are better put to use to finance a family trip to Israel. After all, Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) is a land steeped in the history of the Jewish People, where the events recounted in the Bible come alive and where people can see actual sites firsthand. Israel is a nation populated with Jews of every ilk—Sephardic and Ashkenazic, religious and secular, hailing from countries all over the world, all coming together in the Jewish homeland.

This has become such a popular idea that it’s not difficult to find organized groups from an array of organizations, synagogues, and tours. Sometimes, either in addition to or in lieu of a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony in a young person’s own synagogue, people even choose to hold the ceremony in Israel.

Bar/bat Mitzvah Confirmation

Confirmation provides young men and women with a unique opportunity to continue their Jewish education after they become a bar or bat mitzvah. The confirmation ceremony is a recent addition to Judaism. Interestingly it is an outgrowth of a negative reaction to bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah ceremonies held in a synagogue.

In the mid-nineteenth century as Reform Judaism moved away from traditional customs and observances, the bar mitzvah ceremony came into question. For a period of time, Reform temples even stopped holding bar mitzvah ceremonies altogether.

Instead, the Reform movement introduced group confirmation ceremonies that marked the completion of a course of Jewish education for Jews between the ages of fifteen and eighteen.

While the Reform movement eventually reinstated bar mitzvah ceremonies and added the bat mitzvah ceremonies as well, the concept of a group confirmation service had become entrenched. In fact, the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, as well as some modern Orthodox congregations, also adopted confirmation, and it is a widespread practice today.

This rite-of-passage occasion commonly takes place at the age of sixteen, following three additional years of Jewish education after the bar or bat mitzvah event. Typically congregations hold this group ceremony on Shavuot. Together as a class, the young men and women often perform a cantata or drama. The service may include a Torah reading, special music, speeches, a blessing from the rabbi, and floral arrangements.

Friends and family fill the sanctuary, taking pride not so much in the ceremony itself but in the fact that the confirmands spent several additional years learning about Judaism and the history and culture of the Jewish people.

Of course, this does not mean that they have reached the end of their Jewish education—there is always more to learn. Throughout each Jewish person’s adult life, there are numerous forums and opportunities to study Judaism and the myriad topics connected with the rich tradition of the Jewish people. Each Jew has not just the opportunity but also the responsibility to continue learning for the rest of his or her life.