Bar and Bat Mitzvah: History and Practice
By Suri Levow Krieger
The term bar mitzvah is a noun, referring to the legal status given to a boy at a specific age of life according to Jewish law; it is not a status achieved through a specific ceremony. One becomes a bar mitzvah at 13 years and one day or a bat mitzvah at 12 years and one day. One does not ‘become bar mitzvah‘ed’ by having a special occasion, synagogue- or party-wise. Though it was not intended that way historically, bat mitzvah today is so central to the Jewish life cycle and so highly regarded, that the term has found its way into Webster’s Dictionary:
a solemn ceremony held in the synagogue, usually on Saturday morning, to admit as an adult member of the Jewish community a Jewish boy 13 years old who has successfully completed a prescribed course of study in Judaism
From a traditional Jewish perspective, this definition is technically incorrect, as it fuses the age factor of bar mitzvah with the celebration. Knowing that we need to separate the two, the age factor of bar/bat mitzvah is not disputable. The celebration of bar/bat mitzvah, however, of which Webster gives one commonly accepted notion, has been the subject of much disagreement. Furthermore, the various forms of ceremony that have evolved around this event often overshadow the religious significance intended, thus prompting highly respected poskim like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to claim, ‘If I had the power, I would abolish the bar mitzvah ceremony in this country. . . . It is well known that it has brought no one closer to study or observance.’ 1
The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony is meant to be an act of public acknowledgement of a status automatically conferred. What is acceptable and permissible at this ceremony is the subject of this paper.
The term bar mitzvah is Hebrew-Aramaic, indicating a person who is obligated to observe the laws and rituals of Judaism. The first Talmudic reference using the term, found in Bava Metzia 96a, does not allude at all to what we currently think of as bar mitzvah. In this case, a minor and a non-Jewish slave are described as ‘not being bar mitzvah since they were not obligated to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.’ 2 Midrash Tanchuma, a pre-15th century text, uses the term in clarifying the commandment, ”You should keep these laws.’ (Exodus 13:10) . . . If a minor is bar mitzvah and bar de’ah, he is obliged to wear Tefilin.’ 3 In both of these early references the term is not related at all to a bar mitzvah event as we know it.
Using the term as we do today, to imply a ceremony of simcha related to the coming of age 13, is a relatively recent ritual innovation in Jewish tradition, dating only as far back as the 13th century. There is no direct mention of it, beyond the signs of maturity just cited, in the Torah, the Mishnah, Shulchan Aruch, or Maimonides. However, the seed for this celebration can be found in Mishnah Pirkei Avot 5:25, which delineates life stages worthy of recognition: ‘At five for Scripture, at 10 for Mishna, at 13 for Miztvot, at 15 for Gemara, at 18 for marriage . . . ‘
There is also a Midrash on Genesis 25:27, ‘The boys grew’ (referring to Jacob and Esau).
R. Elazar ben Simeon said: A man must see to the needs of his son until he is 13, from there onward he must say: ‘Blessed is He who released me from the responsibility for this one (Baruch she-p’tarani me’onshah shel zo).’ 4
It took several hundred years, but this ‘she-p’tarani‘ blessing, eventually became a core element of the bar mitzvah ceremony. It then became linked with Torah reading.
A 14th century writer reported that Yehuda Gaon engaged in the following ritual:
At the first occasion when his son was called up to the Torah, the Gaon, Rabbi Yehuda, rose to his feet in the synagogue and recited the blessing ‘she-p’tarani . . . who has freed me from responsibility for this one.’ 5
From about the 15th century onward, references can be found with more regularity concerning some ceremonial bar mitzvah event.
- We see then, that although the bar mitzvah experience is a highly significant life cycle event in contemporary Jewish life, the actual celebration as we know it is about 700 years old, with no firm halakhic basis. That is to say, it is only within the last four hundred years that related descriptions and responsa appear in Rabbinic literature. The bat mitzvah celebration is even newer and less common than its male counterpart, nevertheless some historic indicators do exist. Examples follow:
- In Rabbi Yosef Chaim’s (1883’1909) book Ben Ish Chai, a rabbi from Baghdad talks about the day of a girl’s bat mitzvah as a day of celebration on which she should wear a new outfit so that she can say ‘She’he’chiyanu’ and acknowledge her entrance to the ‘burden of mitzvot‘ (ol mitzvot). 6
- Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim, late Sephardi chief Rabbi of Israel, quotes from Rabbi Mussafya of Spain (1606-1675), a rabbi and personal doctor of King Christian IV of Denmark, who says that bat mitzvah is a day of celebration and the dinner is a considered a ‘se’udat mitzvah‘ (mitzvah dinner).
- In Italy (Turin and Milan), it was customary to gather the bat mitzvah girls and the community during a weekday, have the girls stand in front of the open ark, and recite prayers, including a special prayer written for them ‘Baruch Ata Hashem lamdeynee chukecha‘ (bless . . . teach me your statutes) and Shehechiyanu. Then the rabbi spoke and blessed the girls and their families. Afterwards, there was a Se’udat mitzvah at the girls’ home.
- Jewish communities of France and Italy created group bat mitzvah celebrations, which were designed to be a culmination of intense study at age 12, whereupon the congregation would gather to witness with song and a somewhat scripted ceremony. 7
Historically it seems that precedence for the bat mitzvah celebration can be traced almost as far back as the bar mitzvah, despite its lack of pronouncement until contemporary times.
III. AGE VERSUS STAGE
Historically, age is the critical element of bar mitzvah, not the ceremonial event upon the stage, or bimah. Thirteen was a sacred number among Jews in ancient times, and even though there is no actual record of such, there may well have been a celebration of some sort, which resembled the tribal initiation rites celebrated among primitive people in antiquity. 8 But the primary concern of the Mishnah is determining the age when adolescents are considered mature enough in general to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, and the performance of Jewish Law. Halakhic maturity is defined in Mishna Niddah as twelve years and a day for a girl and thirteen years and a day for a boy:
At eleven and one day a girl’s vows are inspected; at twelve and one day they are valid. At twelve and one day a boy’s vows are inspected; at thirteen and one day they are valid . . . 9
Both Maimonides (Mishneh Torah) and the Shulchan Aruch similarly describe fasting responsibility on Yom Kippur:
A girl of twelve and one day and a boy of thirteen and one day who have brought forth two hairs are considered adults with regard to all of the commandments and must complete the fast as an obligation from the Torah, but if they have not brought forth two hairs then they are regarded as minors and complete the fast as a rabbinical obligation only. 10
Maturity of body and of mind are meant to coincide at puberty and so this becomes the time to take on adult religious responsibilities. For a boy, these responsibilities implicitly involved public signs of recognition: participation in minyan, wearing tefilin, the ‘se’udah‘ of bar mitzvah. For a girl, no definitive taking on of mitzvot is mentioned beyond fasting on Yom Kippur. Though the age of maturity is specified by our great Rabbanim, it is not specifically linked to a ceremony akin to contemporary notions of bar mitzvah. Furthermore, a bat mitzvah was afforded no public communal acknowledgment of her new status whatsoever.
- IV. HALAKHIC PARAMETERS FOR bat mitzvah CELEBRATION
- Baruch she-p’tarani: As noted earlier, the intention of this blessing was to free the father from the responsibility for his son’s actions once puberty begins. There is much rabbinic discussion as to whether it is appropriate for fathers to be rewarded or punished for the deeds of their children, and vice versa. There is also disagreement as to whether ‘she-p’tarani‘ is required or optional. Neither the Arba’ah Turim nor the Shulchan Aruch mention it, and yet others claim that it is the single unique feature of bar mitzvah celebration. 12 Of more concern for us is whether this bracha is one that should legitimately be carried over to the bat mitzvah celebration. An egalitarian position would assume that the same blessing should be said for the daughter as for the son. However, there are those who argue that a father is actually responsible for his daughter until marriage. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for him to utter a prayer, which would relinquish him from such responsibility when his daughter is age 12. 13 Consequently it has been ruled by some that the prayer should not be said at all. Others agree on no blessing because it used to be the domain of the mother to educate her daughter, not the father, due to the nature of the mitzvot she was meant to fulfill, and the closeness often associated between mother and daughter. Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim suggests that the text of the bracha be changed to reflect the gender issue. Still others suggest that the mother recite the prayer, rather than father. 14 Most commonly practiced today is the position of David Golinkin, that schehechiyanu is recited instead. 15 In this respect, Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, cites one Ben Ish Hai, 19th century:
The day a girl assumes the obligation to observe the commandments, even in the absence of a festive meal, should be a festive day for her. She should wear her Shabbat clothing and if possible put on a new dress and say sche-heheyanu blessing over it, bearing in mind . . . that she is assuming the yoke of the commandments and it is a good sign. We do so in our family. 16
- Simchah (se’udah) shel mitzvah: In the 16th century Shlomo Luria considered whether a meal on the day of the bar mitzvah is considered a se’udat mitzvah, a festive meal to commemorate a commandment. He determined that it would qualify as long as the boy gave a halakhic discourse during the meal. The question arose then, as to whether the simcha of a bat mitzvah could be considered an officially sanctioned mitzvah, because it is not required or, to some, like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, even desirable. Although far from unanimous in practice, a familiar scenario among modern Orthodox today is to combine the simcha with a siyyum. After completing a primary Jewish text as a mark of accomplishment, the bat mitzvah prepares a d’rasha as an explication of her study. Thereby, she has the opportunity for public speaking and recognition on the occasion of bat mitzvah. 17
- D’rasha: The issue of the bat mitzvah girl doing a d’rasha brings up the larger question of whether a woman may participate in such a mitzvah in public, specifically in the synagogue. The strongest objection comes from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who disapproves of any synagogue involvement on the part of the bat mitzvah, either for the public addressing of a d’rasha or a se’udat mitzvah. 18 Some have tried to get around this ruling and be sensitive to the need for change either by having the girl make a speech off synagogue premises, or after services, for example at Kiddush. A stricter practice is for the rabbi to address the girl in the synagogue, to publicly acknowledge the importance of the occasion, though she herself is not permitted to speak.
Despite the lack of early rabbinic sources to define the bar mitzvah celebration, the ceremony evolved, by the Middle Ages, into a recognizable pattern that contained three primary elements: Baruch she-p’tarani, simchah (se’udah) shel mitzvah, d’rasha. 11 The pattern became so fixed that what was once minhag gradually took on the weight of halakha. Thus when the notion of bat mitzvah was considered in more recent times by the Orthodox community, these elements became halakhic issues which needed to be addressed.
More moderate poskim have made the case for encouraging bat mitzvah, regardless of halakhic considerations. Rabbi Yehiel Weinberg (d. 1966) wrote the following:
Some authorities oppose the bat mitzvah celebration on the grounds of ‘You shall not follow their ways.’ (Lev. 18:3) . . . However, the initiators of this practice claim that they intend thereby to inculcate in the girl’s heart a feeling of love for the commandments and pride in her Jewishness. . . . Some oppose the celebration because earlier generations did not practice this custom. Indeed this is no argument. In previous generations it was not necessary to give daughters a formal education since every Jew was full of Torah and piety; the very atmosphere of every Jewish settlement was thus infused with the spirit of Judaism. Girls who grew up in a Jewish home imbibed the Jewish spirit naturally. . . . Now, however, times have changed radically; the influence of the street destroys in our children any semblance of Judaism. Sound pedagogic principles require that we celebrate a girl’s reaching the age of obligation to fulfill commandments. Discrimination . . . has an adverse affect upon the self respect of the maturing girls who in other respects enjoys the so-called women’s liberation.’ 19
The issue of reading Torah as part of the bat mitzvah celebration in the Orthodox community is only very recent, as women have found a voice in separate women’s prayer service. Rabbi Avi Weiss began instituting such a bat mitzvah option as early as the 1970s. Under his interpretation of the law, since the service took place as a gathering of women, it was permissible for girls at a bat mitzvahh to read Haftora and chant from the Torah with B’rachot, while the few invited men sat behind the mehitza. 20
V. NON-HALAKHIK PARAMETERS FOR bat mitzvah CELEBRATION
The contemporary bat mitzvah ceremony is less than a hundred years old and initially did concern itself with halakhic issues considered in the Orthodox community. This is because the determination to acknowledge a female ‘coming of age’ with a more formal public event grew out of the Enlightenment. The first modern documented celebration comes from a congregation in Eastern Europe.
In 1902 the first bat mitzvah was celebrated in the Enlightened congregation of Rabbi Yechezkel Karo in Lvov, Ukriane, a precursor to Conservative/Reform. It was quite controversial at the time, and was widely publicized. I venture to guess that the reports coming from the East gave Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan the idea for his own daughter’s bat mitzvah. 21
The more widely publicized original bat mitzvah celebration is, of course, the Kaplan bat mitzvah. In 1922, when Mordecai Kaplan was only beginning to construct his Reconstructionist understanding of Judaism, Judith Kaplan was called to the bimah for a bat mitzvah ceremony at the newly formed S.A.J. (Society for the Advancement of Judaism).
Kaplan always said that he had four good reasons for initiating the bat mitzvah ritual in the United States’his four daughters. It took a long time for American Jews to catch up with him in terms of bringing women into full equality with respect to ritual.’ 22
The Kaplan bat mitzvah event is a landmark date in the evolution of this practice. Ironically, Kaplan did not write about this vital ceremony, which he promoted. He merely acknowledged how necessary bar and bat mitzvah occasions are to sustain modern synagogue attendance.
However we may deplore the fact that congregational attendance at Sabbath services has come to depend on bar and bat miztvah occasions, those occasions have become indispensable for the upkeep of Jewish life. 23
Although Kaplan himself did not write responsa on the subject, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and others of the Orthodox world have responded particularly to this line of reasoning, wary of its various implications:
Concerning those who wish to conduct a formal celebration for a bat mitzvah, under no circumstances is it to be held in a synagogue, which is no place for an optional function. A bat mitzvah celebration is surely optional and even trivial, and cannot be permitted in a synagogue, especially since it was instituted by Reform and Conservative Jews. If, however, a father wishes to make some festivity in his home, he may do so, but there is no reason to consider it a se’udat mitzvah. 24
A century earlier Rabbi Aaron Walkin of Lithuania wrote:
It is forbidden to arrange gatherings of men and women, young and old, to celebrate a daughter’s reaching maturity, not only because of the promiscuity involved, but also because anyone who arranges such gatherings is imitating Gentiles and irreligious Jews’even when the Torah is read and everyone stands in awe. 25
Yet another strong voice, that of R. Moshe Sternbuch, echoes the same sentiments:
It is well known that the Reformers celebrate a daughter’s coming to mitzvot with a large festive meal as for a son. Such a party is completely forbidden (issur gamur) and a deviation from the ways of our fathers. Any party motivated by the purpose of making women and men equal is completely forbidden. . . . In places where it is customary to gather her friends and family for a small meal, which bears no similarity to a festive meal. . . . I do not find any prohibition against it. 26
The concern over imitation of practices in other religions is factually based. In the early years of Reform Judaism the practice of bar/bat mitzvah was often substituted by a confirmation service, held in the later teenage years. This was an attempt to both lengthen the time required for Judaic study to 15 or 16 years, and to intentionally imitate practices going on in Christian religious education. 27
By the 1980’s, however, as a return to more traditional forms of ritual came into vogue, the celebration of both bar and bat mitzvah became standard in most Reform congregations. As a result, it rapidly became the case that the primary attendees at a service were often there purely for the bar or bat mitzvah event, with little or no interest in the religious aspect of the celebration. The communal religious component was often lost in the excitement and extravagance of the celebration. Eric Yoffie commented on this phenomenon as follows:
For many Reform Jews the rite of bar mitzvah is the single most significant religious event in their lives, and we should be respectful of its impact. Still, Judaism is a collective enterprise, not a private pursuit, and we must be troubled by the prospect that a family celebration is displacing Shabbat morning communal prayer. 28
Issues of celebration in the Reform world are obviously not of a halakhic nature, but reflect concern for respectability and inclusion. Differential ceremony for male and female is one which did not fit into the Reform picture, even in early years. In 1907, Hebrew Union College president Rabbi K. Kohler wrote:
Ceremonies which assign to women an inferior rank according to oriental (traditional) notions are out of place with us. Reform Judaism recognizes women as man’s equal, and sees in her deeper emotional nature, which is more responsive to the promptings of the spirit, the real inspiring influence for religious life in the household. 29
The Conservative movement recognized the need for egalitarian inclusion of women somewhat later than the Reform, but came through with a landmark decision in 1955 that it is halakhikally permissible for women to have aliyot. 30 Rabbi David Golinkin, the chief Mesorati Rabbi of Israel, further defended the halakhik rite for women to read Torah in public and be included in minyan, 31 thereby opening the way for what has become fairly standard acceptance in Conservative synagogues today. Even so, until the late 1960s most Conservative celebrations happened as part of Friday night services, when the Torah is not read. The girl was called to the bimah, chanted haftorah and related blessings, followed by an honorary kiddush. The practice today, though with variation, more commonly involves a bat mitzvah chanting some portion of the Torah reading during the regular Shabbat morning service, in conjunction with a d’var Torah.
There are two distinct ways to approach the issue of permissibility and acceptability, that is, are we determining with or without halakhic parameters. If the celebration is meant to be a public acknowledgement of a young Jewish women ‘coming of age’ in our contemporary, feminist-sensitive society, then a celebration parallel to bar mitzvah seems most appropriate, with no halakhic constrictions. A recognizable basic prescription is shared within the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. The event is generally held in the synagogue and includes an aliyah to the Torah, a portion of Torah reading, a d’var Torah, recitation of she-heheyanu by parents and the bat mitzvah, and a party. This mode of celebration may be deemed acceptable and permissible by their related movements, though most rabbinic and pedagogic authorities disapprove of the lavish and excessive tone that bat mitzvah parties have taken on. Variations of this ceremony do exist, and creative innovations have been suggested to further distinguish the female nature of this rite of passage from the male, such as a menarche ritual proposed by Judy Petsonk. 32
From the halakhic perspective, inasmuch as the Orthodox movement is the last to incorporate the practice of bat mitzvah, Orthodoxy also has the largest diversity and variation of this practice, and the largest number of poskim who have written on the subject. It would be inaccurate to say, even today, that the movement as a whole sanctions the celebration. The positions on acceptance and permissibility range from non-receptive (Moshe Feinstein) to tolerant to encouraging (Ovadia Yosef). The celebrations reflecting these positions vary just as widely. Some are merely parties, with no religious component, held in the home of the parent or a catering hall. Some hold a kiddush at the synagogue during which the bat mitzvah presents a d’var Torah, often as a siyyum. And some actually read from a Torah during a separate, but relatively equal, women’s prayer service. Nevertheless, a growing concern over feminine consciousness is apparent today within the Orthodox world. The need to acknowledge and respond to this new awareness is dramatically influencing the parameters of acceptability within that community. Blu Greenberg, a prominent spokeswoman for this movement, writes,
For the present generation of Jewish women a clear mandate can be given. . . . There must be a flowering of women’s prayers and an encouragement of leadership roles for women in liturgy. . . . Jewish women must begin to acquire an intensive Jewish education right up through the level of high quality rabbinic schools. . . . Only then will women become part of the learned elite of our community in whose hands is vested the authority, the power, the leadership and the inspiration. 33
A review of early bar/bat mitzvah literature indicates that there is no authentic halakha from Torah or Talmudic sources that dictate definitive laws of a bat mitzvah ceremony. Even the three distinguishing mitzvot promoted by the Orthodox community are not items which are historically verifiable as halakha. The bracha she-p’tarani, the se’udat mitzvah, and the d’var Torah each have unclear and non-binding origins. It can be concluded, therefore, that inasmuch as the bar mitzvah celebration is basically minhag and not halakhah, how much more so is a bat mitzvah. Therefore, in determining acceptability and permissibility of celebration, one should evaluate what is currently being done in a particular community and go with minhag hamakom. More of concern is what should not be done; that is, a bat mitzvah should not be taken as an opportunity for ostentatious display. In this matter, we respect the sentiment of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein expressed earlier. In keeping with the notion of egalitarian inclusion of women in the Jewish community in all arenas, from participation in tefilah to being a rabbi, the bat mitzvah ceremony should be of no less stature and ritual than its bar mitzvah counterpart.