Bar Mitzvah means “son of commandment,” a rather elliptical term connoting that a young Jewish male has reached the age of majority, and thus become obligated to perform ritual commandments. A child reaching Bar Mitzvah age may be counted toward the 10 adults required for a prayer quorum. A similar term—Bat Mitzvah—is used for Jewish females at the same juncture in life, even though they are not subject to the same ritual obligations as males. Many misunderstand the precise meaning of the term, taking it to connote, first and foremost, the ceremony that often celebrates a young person’s coming of age. In essence, however, the terms apply to the person who becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a transition that takes place simply by virtue of turning 13; that the ceremony celebrating that juncture has come to be better known by the same term does not negate its true sense. It should be noted that, insofar as becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah marks reaching puberty, many congregations have girls hold their ceremony at age 12, owing to the fact that girls usually reach puberty about a year earlier than boys. Also worth mentioning is the fact that, whereas the idea of holding a ceremony and celebration for boys is quite ancient, for girls it is under a century old, having originated in the United States. (The first female to hold a Bat Mitzvah ceremony, incidentally, was Judith Kaplan, daughter of Reconstructionist Movement founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.)
Before turning to the ceremony and celebration, let us say a word about the religious significance of becoming majority age in Judaism. As explained in the entry under “Judaism,” the Jewish religion, in practice, is a system of commandments that can be bifurcated between ethical and ritual. Whereas ethical commandments are always binding, ritual commandments are binding on different people at different times. The commandment of thrice-daily statutory prayer, for example, holds only for Jewish adult males; Jewish law exempts females, so as to prevent religious duty from conflicting with domestic duties, especially child rearing.
Minors are also exempt from such commandments, owing to the fact that their minds and sensibilities are not yet able to grasp the significance of such religious activity. Puberty thus demarks the onset of attaining these assets. Once maturity is reached, the ritual commandments become binding for Jewish males. Traditional Jewish theology addresses failure to perform such commandments as sinful; thus, reaching Bar Mitzvah age elevates the spiritual onus, if you will, for neglecting ritual behavior.
Much more widely known are the trappings associated with reaching Bar and Bat Mitzvah age, especially as it is celebrated outside the deeply orthodox Jewish world. At their worst, some families have thrown lavish parties—renting yachts, spending thousands on famous entertainers, and the like—which have tainted the beauty and significance of the rite. For the most part, however, families have adhered to appropriate good taste and proportion, holding festive celebrations that aptly mark their child’s coming of age.
In North America, most Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies are held on Sabbath in the synagogue and call for the youngster to lead substantial portions of a worship service—much if not mostly in Hebrew—and usually speaking to the congregation about what the rite means to him or her. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah worship service usually is preceded by year-long preparation under the guidance of a special tutor, often the rabbi or cantor of the family congregation. The child usually learns to chant Hebrew parts of the Pentateuch designated for his or her Sabbath service, as well as a longer portion of Hebrew from Prophets called the “haftarah.” Many young people also learn how to chant parts of the liturgy and lead the congregation in prayer.
It is, of course, customary for family and friends to give gifts to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah youth, especially in monetary form. Children often realize substantial sums that usually become savings toward college or car. In the best of outcomes, Bar and Bat Mitzvah training equips the youngster with prayer and speaking skills suitable for leading the congregation in prayer, scriptural cantillation, and study and instills in him or her the desire to regularly put his or her skills to use.
- Judaism 101. (n.d.). Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation. Available at http://Jewforg/barmitz.htm
- Salkin, K. (1991). For kids—Putting God on your guest list. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights.