March 10, 2013

Bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah

Bar mitzvah means "son of the commandments" in Aramaic, which was once the vernacular language of the Jewish people. Upon becoming bar mitzvah, a boy is obliged by Jewish law to follow the commandments in the Torah. He can count in a minyan, the minimum number of people required to say certain prayers. A boy automatically becomes bar mitzvah upon turning thirteen. However, it is popular to have a ceremony to celebrate this important milestone in a Jewish boy's life.

The Talmud, compiled during the centuries following the publication of the Mishnah, the first published work of rabbinic law, around the year 200, is a set of documents that comment on the Mishnah. According to the Talmud, boys were able to perform many mitzvot (commandments,) even prior to becoming bar mitzvah. By the Middle Ages, children were no longer allowed these responsibilites, and a coming of age ceremony to celebrate a boy's first aliyah (recitation of blessings on the Torah) made sense. By the 16th century it was common to call a boy up to the Torah on the Sabbath following his thirteenth birthday. In the 17th century, bar mitzvahs in Germany chanted the entire Torah portion. A feast at the boy's parents house was eventually added to the ceremony. In Poland, it was common for a boy to give a drasha (discourse) in talmudic law during the feast.

Modern bar mitzvah ceremonies vary depending on the boy's family and synagogue and the movement of Judaism to which his family belongs. The ceremony usually takes place during the first Sabbath service following the boy's thirteenth birthday. He is called up to recite the aliyah. He may read some or all of the Torah reading, and traditionally reads the maftir, which is the final portion. Sometimes he chants the haftarah, the weekly prophetic portion associated with the weekly Torah portion. Often, the boy's father recites a blessing stating that he is no longer responsible for his son's decisions. It is common for the boy to give a speech following his Torah reading that relates to the reading in some way. He may also announce a mitzvah project, which is an in-depth study of one of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah.

A boy reads from the Torah during his bar mitzvah ceremony: credits to
 The service is usually followed by a large scale reception. In some communities, bar mitzvah receptions are as large as wedding receptions. There is no rule about what type of presents to give. Family members often give presents that have something to do with the boy's faith. Tefillin, black leather boxes containing parchments inscribed with passages from the Torah, are a common present, according to Tefillin are worn on the head and the arm with leather straps during weekday morning services. Wearing tefillin is one of the mitzvot, and a boy usually has not worn tefillin prior to becoming bar mitzvah. Monetary gifts in multiples of 18 are common. The number 18 represents good luck and the Jewish symbol chai, which means life.

Preparation for a bar mitzvah can begin up to eighteen months in advance. The boy studies the mitzvot and learns to chant the haftarah. He prepares a speech and learns how to lead the service. Often, a boy attends bar mitzvah lessons prior to the big day. These lessons help him understand what it means to be Jewish and the importance of becoming an adult in the synagogue. It is important to know that a bar mitzvah is not the end of one's Jewish education, but rather the true beginning of Jewish life. Some rabbis ask bar mitzvahs to sign an agreement stating that they will continue their Jewish education.

Bat mitzvah means "daughter of the commandments." A girl becomes bat mitzvah upon turning twelve. Traditionally, Jewish women were not allowed to participate directly in religious services. That began to change in the early 20th century. The first bat mitzvah in America was given by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a leader in the Jewish reform movement, for his daughter Judith in 1922, according to Judith was allowed to read from the Torah when she became bat mitzvah, but the ceremony was not as complex as bar mitzvah ceremonies of that time. Over time, bat mitzvah ceremonies became more widespread. In liberal Jewish communities today, they are very similar to bar mitzvahs . In Orthodox Jewish communities women are still not allowed to participate in religious services, and a bat mitzvah ceremony may consist of the girl reading from the Torah during an all-women's prayer service.

A boy automatically becomes bar mitzvah upon turning thirteen, and a girl automatically becomes bat mitzvah upon turning twelve. A ceremony is not necessary; however, it helps many people understand the importance of this life event. Sometimes, men who did not have bar mitzvah ceremonies when they turned thirteen feel incomplete and have a bar mitzvah as an adult. Many women who grew up before bat mitzvahs were widespread had adult bat mitzvahs.

Birthday shoutouts to Sophie and Toni

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! I didn't realize there was a different age marker for girls vs. boys. Have never been to either kind of mitzvah, but if we'd stayed out east we would have likely gone to several!