HMS 5765-7; Bar and Bat Mitzvah

Lessons in Memory of my brother Dale Alan Konigsburg

November 8, 2004 – Number 5765-7

Bar and Bat Mitzvah

For the sake of clarity, Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah are the same thing. They mark the age when a Jewish child takes on the ritual commandments of adulthood. It is “legal age” for Jewish ritual purposes. In ancient days, this legal age came about with the onset of puberty. With a nod to women who mature earlier than men, Bat Mitzvah, in ancient times occurred at age 12 ½, for boys, Bat Mitzvah was at age 13. Today most congregations observe the date for both sexes at age 13. By legal age we mean the age when a Jewish child is responsible for daily prayer, for daily study and to participate in ritual commandments, (lighting candles, saying Kiddush, reciting blessings etc.). Please note that these requirements fall upon the child no matter what may happen on that birthday, with or without a party or any celebration marking the day. Any child, over the age of 13 is by definition a Bar (Bat) Mitzvah, that is legally responsible for the mitzvot. Just as an American child is legal age when they reach 18, no matter if they have a birthday party or not.
There is no Bar of Bat Mitzvah in the Torah or anywhere in the Bible. It is first found in the Mishna, in massechet Avot where it declares that age 13 is the age for Mitzvot. That is, the age when a person is responsible for the Mitzvot. In Jewish law, anyone who shares the same level of responsibility for the Mitzvot can perform that Mitzvah on behalf of someone else. This means that once a child is “legal age” than they can also lead services, read Torah, light candles and do other rituals on behalf of others. This is why the ritual for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is to participate in a service. It applies to any service, weekday, holiday or Shabbat, and to any part of the service, Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv, Musaf or the Torah Service. Since Shabbat services are the focus of a week of prayer, and the most important part of that service is the reading of the Torah and most important Torah honor on Shabbat is Maftir, the final aliyah, than we give the new Bar or Bat Mitzvah that honor. It is a chance to show the community what they have learned in school about Torah, Haftara, chanting and Hebrew. To this base we add on other honors. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah may actually read other sections of the Torah on behalf of the people with earlier honors, he or she may lead the Pesuke D’Zimra, the Shacharit, the Torah service or the Musaf service. It is also the custom in some places for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah to lead a lesson in the Torah, by giving the D’var Torah for that Shabbat, the explanation of what will be read in the Torah and how it relates to what is important in his or her life. The parents of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah are also given an honor on that Shabbat. In past centuries, the parents would recite a special blessing thanking G-d for relieving then of responsibility for their child (who is now legal age and responsible for him/herself). Since in our modern world, responsibility for our children will last at least until age 18 ( and in some families well beyond age 40!) It is no longer our custom to recite this blessing. We give a special blessing to parents as they enter a new phase in the growth of their child.
Children with learning disabilities can also mark their passage into Jewish legal age. They may take part in the less complicated services on Monday, Thursday or Shabbat Afternoon. They may take a less complicated aliyah than Maftir or may conduce a shorter service. What they do is not important, only that we mark this milestone in their life. The Masorti Movement in Israel (the Israeli version of our Conservative Judaism) has helped students who were declared “uneducatible” by the other rabbis, take part in a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony, to the joy of the students and their parents as well.
It has been my experience, that the students who do well in their training for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony are the students who attend Shabbat services regularly, especially if they attend with their family. Once they have a firm understanding of what the elements of the service are, they learn quickly and easily the lessons that help them master each element in turn. There is on other indicator for success in Bar or Bat Mitzvah training that is more significant that regular attendance in synagogue for the student and his or her family. Families who want to maximize their child’s participation in the service, should bring them to synagogue as often as possible from as early an age as possible.
Because of the number of families who need to find a date for their celebration, and because of friendships between students that transcend one congregation or another, as well as for reasons of planning a proper Seudah Mitzvah ( a meal in celebration of a ritual), often a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is picked up to three years in advance. Actual Bar/Bat Mitzvah training will begin usually about a year before the child turns 13. Until that time, almost all congregations require synagogue membership for the family and a total of 5 continuous years of Religious school or Day School training. While a Bar Mitzvah ceremony could be taught and performed in as little time as a few weeks, such ceremonies have no meaning for the child as it has no basis in the context of a Jewish Education, and is nothing more than a rote recital for the community. Most congregations do not see themselves as “Bar Mitzvah Factories” and have requirements that insure an educational context for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. While planning a party is fun, the celebration after the ceremony is second to the celebration in synagogue. Families should spend more time on the ritual part of the ceremony and less time party planning.
A new addition to the ceremony has been added in recent years. Since the child is ready to perform Mitzvot, some families are adopting a “Mitzvah Project” for their child, using this celebration to bring about an important Mitzvah. Some ask invited guests to bring items like children books, clothing, food and coats to be donated by the child to the impoverished. Others include buying bonds for Israel, contributions to Federation or other worthy Jewish causes, help for animals, hospital patients or a wide variety of other causes. Families should consult with their Rabbi for ideas and resources to help a family decide on a proper project. Since this is also the time the student becomes responsible for his or her own contributions to Tzedakah, a portion of money received as gifts should also be earmarked for worthy causes.

Next week: Bar and Bat Mitzvah Parties

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