Bar/Bat Mitzvah

About Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Our sages taught that a parent is responsible for the actions of a child until the child reaches the age of 13 years and one day, at which point, the child reaches the age of legal majority in the Jewish community and assume full responsibility for observing the commandments and for all his/her deeds. At the age of 13 and a day, a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah (which means the "age of responsibility for the commandments") and a girl becomes Bat Mitzvah (some follow the tradition of considering a girl Bat Mitzvah at the age of 12 years and one day, on the basis of the Mishnah's granting her responsibility for her own vows at that age).

From the age of 13 and a day onward, a Jew is counted as part of a minyan [the quorum required for public prayer], eligible to read Torah publicly, and obligated to fulfill the dictates of Jewish life.

Every Jew becomes a Bar Mitzvah automatically. It is a change of legal status; it has nothing to do with how much an individual knows or has learned. No ceremony, certificate, or special service is required. However, it is a change of status that affects the entire community, since now there is an additional member to count in the minyan, and thus it has been customary to celebrate this milestone since the 1300's, though celebrations have always been small and modest until this century.

The centerpiece of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration is the child's first aliyah: the first time the child is permitted to ascend the bima and recite the blessings over the Torah on behalf of the congregation. In most congregations, the child also chants part of the Torah portion and the Haftarah portion, as well. In many congregations, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah also leads some or all of the service, this too being a function reserved for adults.

Traditionally, after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah assumes his/her place in the congregation, signified by reciting the blessings over the Torah, the parents recite a brief blessings thanking God for releasing them for the responsibility for their child's sins, since the child is now fully responsible before God for his/her own behavior. This ceremony would take place on the Shabbat, Monday, or Thursday following the child's becoming 13 years and one day.

Many families choose to celebrate the occasion with a luncheon following the service.

I am frequently asked what an appropriate gift for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah might be. You cannot go wrong with a gift certificate to a Jewish bookstore. Becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah marks the beginning of Jewish adult life, and this includes learning. If you will be a guest at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service, and want a quick reference to know what to expect, please click here.

[To learn more about the traditions of the synagogue in greater depth click here.]

Return to top of page.

Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah

A recent phenomena, Adult Bar/Bar Mitzvah, has emerged. Often, these are group ceremonies following an extensive study process; they appeal to people who did not have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony when they were children, or who moved away from Jewish tradition and are now returning. I must admit that I find them peculiar, since the notion of an adult becoming bar/bat mitzvah is inherently contradictory. One becomes bar/bat mitzvah automatically when one reaches the age of 13 years plus one day, whether one is aware of this status and its ensuing obligations or not. Yet I appreciate the importance of this stage in the life of an adult and feel that it is best to recognize it as an adult phenomenon. For those who come to Judaism later, or who were denied a ceremony at 13 (which is the case for many women, in particular) we might consider a different ceremony which acknowledges their study (on an adult level) and commitment (with the insight and wisdom that are born of age) but which does not change the fundamental meaning of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. (I have been told that I am a "stick in the mud" for thinking this way. So be it.)

Return to top of page.

Resources for Learning More

Putting God on the Guest List by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin (1993, Jewish Lights Publishing) is a must-read for every family planning to celebrate this milestone in their child's life. It will help you invest the experience with spirituality, depth, and meaning. Rabbi Salkin has recently published a version for Bar/Bat Mitzvah candidates.

Whose Bar/Bat Mitzvah is This, Anyway? by Judith Davis, Ed.D., (1998, St. Martin's Griffin) is a book suited to modern families with high expectations and fast-paced lifestyles. The author takes on the topics of stress, responsibility, balance, and the need to invest meaning into ritual.

The Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah Handbook: A Spiritual Journey by Seymour Rossel (1993, Behrman House) provides a brief and readable overview of the meaning and mechanics of becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah. This is a very helpful publication aimed at prospective B'nai Mitzvah students and their parents.

Coming of Age: Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah by Benjamin Efron and Alvan D. Rubin (1977, Jewish Lights Publishing) is a pamphlet-length booklet describing the history of the ceremony and the basic requirements for the service.

The Narrowest Bar Mitzvah by Steven Schnur (1986, The Union of American Hebrew Congregations) is a work of fiction. The story takes place before and during Alex's Bar Mitzvah service and through a series of seeming disasters, Alex learns the true meaning of the occasion. This story is a celebration of grandparents.

Emma Ansky-Levine and Her Mitzvah Machine by Lawrence Bush (1991, The Union of American Hebrew Congregations) tells the story of 12-year-old Emma whose Uncle Izzy sends her a most unusual birthday present from which she learns the meaning of belief in one God and living Jewish values in her own life. This is an excellent book for children preparing to become Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

Return to top of page.

More on the Jewish Life Cyle: