Bar & Bat Mitzvah
What does it mean to the honoree?
The Torah records one right of passage for a 13-year-old: It involved a knife, a foreskin, and Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael. To this day, in some areas of the world, circumcision at puberty is still a painful fact of life. In stark contrast, Jewish descendants of Abraham’s younger son simply chant in Hebrew to mark their entry into adulthood. If a bar or bat mitzvah doesn’t always live up to its potential spiritual significance, at least it doesn’t leave you with a limp.
But how to approach a rite of passage that leaves at best only psychic scars? While most of us may instinctively know that a half-million dollar bash celebrating the Titanic is not the best approach, the combination of bar mitzvah lessons, bar mitzvah, and bar mitzvah party seems oddly disjunct from the concept of adulthood.
For that matter, is our 13 year old bar mitzvah boy – or 12 or 13 year old bat mitzvah girl – really an adult?
In America, coming of age is a five-year progression. At 16, children are eligible to get a driver’s license. At 17, they’re allowed grownup-doses of violence and sex in their movies. At 18, they leave home to go to college and get to vote. And at 21, they can buy cigarettes and alcohol, full legal adults, able to smoke and drink themselves silly.
So what do they "get" for coming of age in the Jewish sense, that is, attaining the age of Bar or Bat-mitzvah?
And what value does their new Jewish "adulthood" hold for them?
With the secular perquisites, the allure is obvious –the burgeoning adult is receiving the rights and privileges of age. The young man is trying on Daddy’s fedora, while the young woman is staggering around in her mother’s pumps.
How the same children feel about assuming religious responsibilities has a lot to do with how their adults feel about their own religious life. Can putting on a tallit for the first time ever be as exciting as being tossed the keys to the car?
Chanting the Torah or Haftorah portion demonstrates serious preparation. And doing so publicly – before friends, family and Aunt Sadie – provides an opportunity to overcome stage fright and embarrassment that will serve the celebrant well as he or she increasingly moves into the public arena.
In traditional society, focused (for men) on the synagogue, a 13-year-old boy’s ability to lead the service, to read from the Torah and to count in the minyan, marked him as a participant in society. He was truly a man. But if, as in most synagogues, Torah reading is something performed only by rabbis, cantors and bar mitzvah children, it’s hardly an assuming of an adult mantle; it’s living up to the performance expectations of a 13-year-old. And that’s a different matter.
For a bar or bat mitzvah to be meaningful, it has to truly represent becoming an adult Jew.
But what does that mean? If you want your child’s coming-of-age to be meaningful, the question of what it means to be an adult Jew is something that you have to answer first.
What do you find exciting, interesting, compelling, gripping about Judaism? What in Judaism are you proud of?
If you have the skills and to read from the Torah in services, and you proudly take the opportunity to exercise them, you can be sure your child would be thrilled to follow in your footsteps. If your Judaism is secondary to "real" life, then that ambivalence will be the legacy they receive.
Between these two extremes, is a Jewish connection that is strong, and real, but more abstract and amorphous than opening up a Torah and chanting. It may be in the realm of feelings and connections, or actions like charity and attending meetings that to a 13-year-old is just boring "grown-up" stuff. Now might be a time to think about how being Jewish moves and excites you – and how to make the abstract concrete again.
If making a difference in the lives of other people is an important part of your Judaism, then it’s appropriate to find a way for your child to make a difference; he or she may be able to make a donation from the gift money to a synagogue; your child may be able to volunteer.
If inviting guests to your table, and making your home open to others is important to you, perhaps your child would be taken with the idea of donating the leftover food from the reception to a soup kitchen? Consult the "Social and Human Services" section of your Yellow Pages, to contact a local food bank.
If organizing community response to community problems is important to you, it might be appropriate to request that the guests to your celebration bring canned foods, toiletries, and other items of comfort for subsequent distribution to the homeless in your area. Your teenager will have engineered a food drive for the homeless, with you as a facilitator and advisor (when you are asked!).
So to be truly significant, the bar/bat-mitzvah must fade in importance as an isolated milestone. As the culmination of lessons, study and planning, its status should not be overshadowed by its marker, but rather it should be viewed as the beginning of a new sort of Jewish participation and involvement.
Further, if this journey is something in which the parents take an active part, the child’s interest becomes an expression of the growing awareness of him or herself as a potentially powerful spiritual being, in imitation of committed parents, and as such is an expression of maturity, and a passing of the mantle to the next generation.
Bar or Bat Mitzvah literally means "son or daughter of the commandment," the thirteen year-old male (bar-Aramaic for "son") or twelve year-old female (bat-Hebrew for "daughter") responsible for the commandments. The phrase also refers to the ceremony itself.
Interestingly, although bar/bat mitzvah has become one of the most widely observed Jewish rite of passage, it has no ancient roots or biblical authority. We first read of it in the Mishnah: "Yehuda ben Tema said:... A thirteen year-old becomes obliged to observe the commandments" (Avot 5:25). The Sages of the Talmud gave this statement legal weight, assigning 13 as the age after which a boy is responsible for mitzvot. The term bar mitzvah in its contemporary connotation does not appear in the Talmud, although it is found as a general term for an adult male.
The blessing in which the father bestows upon the bar mitzvah the responsibility for his own religiouis life is mentioned in rabbinic sources.
The text for the blessing is as follows:
Barukh she'petarani mi-onsho shel zeh - Blessed is He who has free me from the punishment due this child. (Genesis Rabbah 63:14)
During the late Middle Ages an elaborate ceremony developed, generally divided into the religious ceremony in the synagogue and the subsequent social celebration. In 15th-century Europe, the custom evolved whereby the synagogue rite of passage was followed by a se'udat mitzvah (festive meal), during which the boy delivered his first talmudic discourse (derasha) and received gifts which reflected his new status: religious books, phylacteries (tefillin), and in some communities a prayer shawl (tallit) The medieval community strictly regulated and limited the extent of the festivities and the gifts, and provided for similar celebrations for poor boys at the community's expense. In many circles today, the ceremony is often followed by a lavish dinner-party and gifts tend to be quite lavish.
The synagogue ceremony normally takes place among Ashkenazim on the first Sabbath following the actual Hebrew date of the boy's thirteenth birthday. It can also take place on any weekday when the Torah is read (Monday or Thursday during an ordinary week, or on a festival when the Torah is read) following the Hebrew date of the boy's thirteenth birthday. For a girl, twelve is the magic number, as it is generally assumed that girls mature at a faster rate than that.)
The boy (and in liberal congregations the girl as well) reads the Torah portion (in more traditional communities the entire portion, in others only the last maftir section), and also the haftarah (prophetic portion). In some communities the boy reads a special prayer for the occasion. It also became customary for him to deliver a learned derasha (discourse). The custom of addressing the boy in the synagogue is a recent development which is quickly becoming widespread. It is customary for the congregants to throw candies at the bar/bat mizvah after s/he has completed the readings.
Following the 1967 war in Israel, it became popular for bar mizvah boys from Israel and from abroad to hold the ceremony at the Kotel, the Western Wall.
The boy (and in modern days the girl as well) studies the cantillation of Torah texts, the melody of which differs for the reading of the Torah or of the haftarah (a selection from the Prophets which somehow parallels or recalls the Sabbath Torah portion). He also learns to put on the tefillin (phylacteries). In some communities, the bar mizvah boy begins to don tefillin at morning prayers a month before his 13th birthday.
In observant circles, the boy begins to don tefillin daily (except for Sabbaths and holidays) from the time of his bar mizvah celebration. The mizvah of wearing tefillin begins when a boy reaches 13 years of age and continues for the rest of his life. The tefillin are composed of black leather boxes, bound by black leather straps to the left hand and around the head. The boxes contain parchments on which are written Biblical verses relating to the commandment to keeping the words of God as a permanent sign "upon your heart and upon your soul...a sign upon your arm and between your eyes."  Tefillin, along with silver cases or special cloth bags for storing them are often given to the bar mizvah boy as a gift, frequently by the parents or grandparents.
In Sephardic and German communities, Jewish men begin wearing the tallit (prayer shawl) at morning prayers from age of 13.
In many 20th-century communities, girls also celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah in special ceremonies, sometimes in the synagogue or elsewhere according to religious affiliation. In more traditional circles, the celebration is limited to a festive meal (se'udat mitzvah) where the girl delivers a speech relating to her religious knowledge. In growing circles, the girl reads the Torah and/or haftorah, demonstrating her becoming a full-fledged members of the adult community.
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