Bar and Bat Mitzvah
Bar and Bat Mitzvah
Jewish religious ceremony and celebration marking the formal entry into adulthood of boys at age 13 (bar mitzvah) and girls at age 12 (bat mitzvah).
In Hebrew, "bar/bat mitzvah" means "son/daughter of the commandment" or "servant of the commandment." American usage of "bar mitzvah," generally means the occasion itself, and undergoing the bar mitzvah ceremony is often referred to as "being bar mitzvahed." Technically, though, bar/bat mitzvah is a term referring to the altered status that the young person automatically attains at the age of 12 or 13, with or without a ceremony. Thus, in the true sense of the word, one becomes a bar/bat mitzvah. At the age of 13, a boy is traditionally deemed qualified to be counted a part of a minyan (the quorum of 10 men needed for public prayer) and can begin wearing tefillin (phylacteries), small square leather boxes containing slips inscribed with scriptural passages and worn on the forehead and left arm by Orthodox men during weekday-morning prayers. In addition, the person is considered ready to participate fully in the ritual fast days of the Jewish calendar.
There is evidence that the ages of 12 and 13 attained their current significance as early as the first century A.D., and the Talmud (the authoritative book of commentary on Jewish law) mentions 13 as the age when one becomes fully responsible for obeying the Ten Commandments. The bar mitzvah ceremony itself is thought
Throughout most of Jewish history, there was no ceremony for girls that paralleled the bar mitzvah since Jewish women were not called to the Torah until the advent of Reform Judaism in the 19th century. The bat mitzvah was initiated early in the 20th century by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement. Rabbi Kaplan celebrated the first bat mitzvah—for his daughter, Judith—in 1922. At the time, Reform Judaism had abandoned the bar mitzvah ceremony in favor of a confirmation based on that of the Lutherans, on the grounds that 13-year-olds were too young to be considered adults. When Reform Jews revived the traditional bar mitzvah ceremony in the 1940s, they also adopted the Reconstructionist bat mitzvah, which became widespread by the 1950s. However, Orthodox Jews still do not hold bat mitzvah ceremonies.
Parents usually begin preparing for a bar/bat mitzvah a year or more in advance. A synagogue must be chosen for the ceremony, if the family does not already belong to a congregation. A date must be picked—traditionally the Saturday closest to the bar/bat mitzvah's 12th or 13th birthday, but in practice usually within a month or two of the date, depending on the ability of the synagogue to accommodate the family's request. A space must also be reserved for the party following the ceremony and a guest list drawn up. The date of the ceremony will determine which weekly Torah portion the bar/bat mitzvah will read. Most synagogues offer classes through their religious schools that prepare students for the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony. In addition, many parents hire a private tutor to work with the child on the particular reading he or she will recite. Classes usually begin a year in advance, and tutoring may start anywhere from six to twelve months ahead of the bar/bat mitzvah date.
The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony varies from one synagogue to another. In all cases, the child is called to the pulpit for an aliyah (the recitation of blessings for the Torah reading, and the reading itself). Many times, the bar/bat mitzvah reads only a part of the Torah portion; sometimes the entire portion—which may consist of over 100 verses—is read. Often, the child also reads from the corresponding weekly portion of the haftarah (readings from the prophets, one corresponding to each weekly Torah portion). Sometimes the role of the bar/bat mitzvah is expanded beyond the Torah (and/or haftarah) reading to actually leading the congregation in part of the service itself, speaking in Hebrew, English, or both languages. Relatives of the bar/bat mitzvah are also honored by being called to the Torah to recite blessings and perform other special duties.
Another common part of the ceremony is the d'rash,a speech delivered by the bar/bat mitzvah. It may contain an interpretation of the Torah portion, a personal statement of religious belief and dedication, or other sentiments appropriate to the occasion. Traditionally, the father of the bar/bat mitzvah recites the following prayer: Barukh shepatrani me-onsho shel zeh (blessed be He Who has relieved me from responsibility for this child). Today, liberal congregations leave out this part of the ceremony. After the bar/bat mitzvah's speech, the rabbi makes a speech (called "the charge") addressed to the young person.
The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony is traditionally followed by a Kiddush (blessing recited over a cup of wine) and seudat mitzvah (a festive dinner or banquet). In past decades, bar mitzvah parties in the United States attained a reputation for lavishness and ostentation, with families using them partly as an occasion to repay business obligations. Today some families have moved away from the materialism of these extravagant affairs, choosing instead to have a smaller, more personal celebration. Increasingly, the central Jewish tradition of tzedakah (charity) has become part of the occasion. Synagogues sometimes have their bar/bat mitzvah classes perform volunteer work in the community as part of their preparation for the occasion, and families may donate a percentage of the money spent on the party dinner to a Jewish charity. In the 1980s a number of American bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies symbolically included a Soviet Jewish "twin" unable to have his or her own ceremony. The Soviet child's name was often printed in the bar/bat mitzvah invitation, and a special certificate was issued in his or her name.
While the great majority of bar/bat mitzvahs are held in synagogues, the ceremony may also take place at home, and the presence of a rabbi is not strictly necessary, as Jewish religious services can be held without one. Some families elect to have the bar/bat mitzvah celebration in Israel, where the ceremony can be held at a site of religious and historical significance. Popular sites include the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem's Old City (the Wailing Wall—for boys only) or the fortification ruins at Masada on the shore of the Dead Sea (for either boys or girls). An innovative modern practice is the celebration of bar/bat mitzvahs by grown men and women who missed having the ceremony at the age of 13—either because they came from non-observant families or they converted to Judaism as adults.
Hasidic Jews (and other traditional-Orthodox sects) have retained the European practice of sending sons who have reached bar mitzvah age to study at yeshivas (religious schools) away from home. They remain at the yeshivas
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