Bar and Bat Mitzvahs

Rites of passage are a common element of various populations. These rites indicate a change in the lives of those involved. This change usually includes more responsibilities of one kind or another and the rite takes the participant into that next phase of life. One such rite for those of the Jewish faith is the passage into adulthood in a religious, and to an extent, a social sense. The b’nai mitzvah, bar mitzvah for boys and bat mitzvah for girls, are the ceremonies established for this purpose.

The ceremony takes place when a boy turns thirteen, or a girl twelve or thirteen, and afterwards, the child is then considered an adult within the religion, expected to take on the responsibilities thereof so that they may help to teach others the ways of the Jewish faith. These responsibilities include praying, observance of the Sabbath, fasting when it is required, and other such things.

While such things were considered mainly the responsibilities of those who were becoming adult males, it has evolved over the centuries to include females to one extent or the other as well, although Orthodox churches still tend to exclude women from performing many of the tasks that have traditionally been the roles of the male. The word “mitzvah” is defined as a commandment, while “bar” and “bat,” respectively, mean son and daughter.
These terms indicate that those going through the ritual are now at a point where they can fulfill the commandments, becoming responsible members of the faith and be welcomed into the adult population. From that point on, the child is considered an adult “for purposes of participating in synagogue ritual” (Fox and Zimbler 18-19). According to Cohen and Weinrott, “The goal of the bar and bat mitzvah is to enter the larger community, while at the same time recognizing one’s own unique individual spiritual and social circumstances” (5). Bar and Bat Mitzvahs Page 2 of 9
The first indication of the practice of the bar mitzvah seems to be in the Talmud several centuries ago during the Second Temple, when it is recorded that the sages would “bless a child who had reached the age of thirteen and who had fasted on Yom Kippur” (Lewit and Epstein 5). At that time there was no ceremony involved, only the declaring of the boy as bar mitzvah on his thirteenth birthday. He was considered an adult then, expected to follow the laws and take responsibility for himself instead of being considered the responsibility of his father.
It was in the thirteenth or fourteenth century that this transition became formalized in such a way that resembles the ritual practiced today. The ceremony then led into a meal to celebrate the boy’s transition, and by 1595, this feast became “so sumptuous that a communal tax was placed on the celebration to stop such excesses” (Cohen and Weinrott 11). The bat mitzvah was not such an illustrious occasion as early as the bar mitzvah. The Talmud records that, around the second or third century, girls came of age at twelve to fulfill the commandments.
Women were not obligated like men to engage in most religious exercises, their responsibilities instead revolving around home and family. While this age was considered important, it was not until the seventeenth century that it was considered important to celebrate the occasion. France and Italy celebrated with a ceremony in the middle of the nineteenth century at the latest, but it was not until 1922 that girls were accorded the same ceremony as boys with their bat mitzvah, when Mordecai Kaplan of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, who founded Reconstructive Judaism, held the ceremony for his daughter.
In some congregations, a girl becomes bat mitzvah at twelve, while in others the ceremony is performed at thirteen, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs Page 3 of 9 like it is for boys. Different congregations of Judaism treat the coming of age of boys and girls in different ways. While some give equal credence to the two genders during this time in belief that both should be on equal footing, there are others who believe that the religious obligations of boys and girls are different and therefore they should follow different rules.
This leads to even more differences in the observance of this special time for girls than it does before, as some congregations have the identical ceremony for both genders while others give the girls less religious responsibility during the occasion. It is not that they consider the duties of a female to be less important, only separate and distinct from those expected from males. The celebration of these ceremonies took on different aspects in different countries starting late in the Middle Ages.
The differences included such things as on which days the ceremony took place and how much of the service was conducted by the boy himself. The Marranos in Spain and Portugal were forced to practice their religion in secret, and the day of the bat mitzvah was when a boy was introduced to the religion. This secrecy helped to preserve the religion for more than 300 years in those countries. The traditional day for the bar or bat mitzvah to take place is on Saturday, which is known as Shabbat, or Sabbath.
Bat mitzvahs are often held on Fridays, different congregations either giving the choice as to whether to hold it on Shabbat or requiring that it be done on Friday night. It is also possible for either ceremony to be held on Mondays or Thursdays, which were days in the days of the Temple when the Torah was read. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs Page 4 of 9 While some may choose to enhance the event by combining it to some extent with existing Jewish holidays, there are certain days which are usually avoided.
The traditions of these holidays can help to make the day even more special and memorable. However, there are certain days that involve the remembrance of tragic times for the Jewish people, and these days, such as Yom Ha-Shoah, when the lives of those lost in the Holocaust are remembered, are considered inappropriate for the occasion due to the solemnity and focus on those who have been lost. Many children who are approaching their time of bar or bat mitzvah take part in a course of study to help prepare them for the occasion.
Children are often taught in groups, and during this time they learn the blessings which are said at the ceremony as well as the basic skills that are needed for the synagogue, which include “the use of the tallit, tefillin; the blowing of a shofar; how to lift and dress the Torah, and other Jewish practices” (Lewit and Epstein 35). In addition to this training of the children in groups comes more individualized training with the cantor. Each child will usually spend four to six months training in this way.
Other tutors may be utilized as well, giving the children a well-rounded and intensive study of what is to come and what is expected of them. Study aids such as the Tikkun are also helpful for this purpose. The Tikkun is a book that is used to help practice reading the Torah, giving help not only with pronunciation, but also with melody, which is a large part of the ceremonies in many congregations. The duties of the bar or bat mitzvah vary from congregation to congregation. At the simplest, it is simply the responsibility of the newly proclaimed adult to recite a blessing at the Torah.
This is the most sacred of books in the Jewish faith, and is Bar and Bat Mitzvahs Page 5 of 9 handwritten on a scroll made of parchment. It is considered an honor to recite a blessing at the Torah, and is the most important part of the bar or bat mitzvah. Depending upon the congregation, he or she will read part or all of the passage, and then the Torah is taken around the synagogue before being returned to its place in the ark which is either at the front or the center of every synagogue.
Another common duty of the bar or bat mitzvah is to read the Haftarah, which is a reading from the Prophets. It, as the Torah, has its own melodies that are usually followed and which take much practice to get right. In some Reform congregations it and the Torah are merely recited. Some congregations can require even more responsibility from the bar or bat mitzvah. He or she can be expected not just to recite the entire Torah portion of the service, but also to lead some of the service or to take over with certain prayers.
A speech can also be required, and the father usually recites a blessing as well, officially relinquishing responsibility for the child who has now become an adult. Some congregations also require the child to spend time writing what is known as a dvar Torah for the ceremony. This is a commentary on a portion or portions of the Torah that the child is expected to study and interpret in his or her own way. He or she usually relates it somehow to his or her life and the significance of the Jewish faith to the individual writing it. The length of the document does not matter so long as it expresses something meaningful.
In addition to the duties expected from the bar or bat mitzvah, others can play a significant role in the ceremony. The number of these can vary in different congregations, but it is considered an honor to the participants who perform those duties. Those who Bar and Bat Mitzvahs Page 6 of 9 take part in this are usually close to the child, and it is a duty that those asked to participate take very seriously. However, Orthodox churches tend to disallow the participation of women in most, if not all, of these. The most important role for one of these honorees is that of the aliyah.
This is when one is allowed to go to the pulpit and both before and after one section is read from the Torah, to recite a blessing. The number of people who can be an aliyah can be as high as eight, with the last one being that of the child, who is to the final blessing, which is known as the Maftir. This demonstrates the first real responsibility that a child is accorded in the congregation to illustrate his or her adult status. Other honors can include family members who are allowed to read a section of the Torah as well as tasks that can be taken on in some cases by younger children.
There are also tasks that can be taken on by those who are not allowed to participate in the Torah service. They can help to hand things out, serve as ushers, or even decorate the synagogue for the ceremony and bake refreshments. There is also a tradition for many of those in the congregation to throw nuts and candies at the newly proclaimed adult after the ceremony, and passing out such things is a job often taken on by younger family members. After the service, many Jewish families throw a celebration.
This has been a big change from earlier days, when there was no pomp but simply a declaration of the child becoming an adult. But these celebrations have become an important part of some congregations, particularly those of American Jews. Many more traditional Jews frown upon the seeming need of many families to try and outdo each other in the extravagance of this celebration. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs Page 7 of 9 One of the traditions that is often followed at Jewish celebrations, including the b’nai mitzvah, is called the Kiddush.
This is a prayer over wine that is defined as sanctification. Red wine is the most commonly used for this purpose and it is decided by the family who will chant the Kiddush. This can be one or more people, depending on their preference. The only one who is required to drink from the goblet of wine is the chanter of the blessing, but some prefer to pass it around so that all may have a taste, or with larger groups, cups may be provided for all. Another blessing that is given is the Motzi, which is the blessing over bread.
Bread is a very important part of the Jewish meal, and a braided bread known as challah is used for such a purpose as important ceremonies. They are symbolic, and “represent not just the staff of life, but unity and peace as well” (Cohen and Weinrott 151). The bread is blessed after the wine, giving thanks for the feast that is to be shared. During the Kiddush, the challah is covered with a cloth, some traditions stating that this is to protect the bread from being embarrassed because the wine is blessed first.
After the blessing of the bread, there is no need for blessings to be said over any of the following courses. It is usually tradition for a grandparent, or eldest member of the family, to say the blessing over the bread as well as cut it after the blessing. It may then be sliced and then passed around to all present, although some prefer to tear the bread with hands instead of cutting it with a knife. It is then usually salted before being eaten, and then the rest of the meal follows. A more recent tradition among the American Jews is that of the candle lighting ceremony.
Thirteen or fourteen people are commonly chosen to light candles that are often placed on a cake, and sometimes make a blessing over the candles for the child. A Bar and Bat Mitzvahs Page 8 of 9 cake is not always used, however, with some people preferring a candelabra or other setting. When the candles are lit is also optional, some preferring it before the meal while others wait until after. Music is often used to announce the tradition, and special words are often said by those lighting them and occasionally by the child as well.
During the celebration is also a time when many choose to make toasts to the child and his or her future and to wish that child well. The parents might choose to give speeches, and usually anyone is invited to say something if they wish, although brevity is often appreciated. The ceremony of Havdalah, which means separation, is often incorporated into Saturday night celebrations, and regarding bar and bat mitzvahs, “it is a special reminder of the bittersweet separation of youth and adulthood” (Cohen and Weinrott 159).
After the celebratory meal, it is a tradition to say the Birkat Ha-Mazon, which means “grace after the meal. ” Four prayers make this up, and then there are also psalms and blessing said as well. There are many choices as to who can lead this service, from the rabbi to the bar or bat mitzvah. However, there are also those who prefer less formal graces, and they might even include a poem or other prayers. The conclusion of this grace is a prayer for peace. Music has always been a large part of the Jewish culture; therefore it is often included as an important part of the celebration.
The offerings of this can range anywhere from the simple to the more elaborate, depending upon the tastes of those involved. It is preferable to involve the guests with this, and that can be done in a variety of ways, from singing to dancing, which usually includes the hora. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs Page 9 of 9 The hora is a traditional dance used during Jewish celebrations. It was developed early in the twentieth century in Israel, and is a group dance, where the dancers are linked to each other in a circle, arms linked and hands on the shoulders of those next to them.
This represents the closeness of the community and the equality of value of all of the people involved… After the hora often comes the chair dance, in which the child sits in a chair and then that chair is lifted above their shoulders by those present. They are then danced that way, and often parents and other family members are allowed to share in the feelings of exultation by having their own turn in the chair. This dance emphasizes not only the individual who is put in the spotlight, but the community around that person who supports the chair and the individual during that time.
The sense of community is very important to those of the Jewish faith, and this dance is a demonstration of this. Ceremony is a very crucial part of Judaism. This can be seen in many of their holidays and ceremonies, and the importance of the b’nai mitzvah can be considered to be the fact that it is this that pulls yet another into the community of Jewish adults. The new adult is allowed then to participate in ways that only adults can, and this strengthens the religion as a whole, passing the traditions and beliefs on to another generation so that it may again be passed on to that person’s children.
Perhaps the fact that the Jewish people have been through much pain and difficulty throughout their history has helped to make these ceremonies even more important than they once were, transitioning them from a simple announcement of adulthood and breaking off of responsibility by the father to the elaborate celebrations that many have today. Bibliography Cohen, Jayne and Lori Weinrott. 2004. The Ultimate Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration Book. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers. Fox, Karen L. and Phylliz Zimbler Miller.
1992. Seasons for Celebratoin: A Contemporary Guide to the Joys, Practices, and Traditions of the Jewish Holidays. New York: The Putnam Publishing Group. Himelstein, Dr. Shmuel. 1990. The Jewish Prayer: Questions and Answers on Jewish Faith and Cuture. New York: Facts on File, Inc. Lewit, Jane and Ellen Epstein. 1996. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Planbook. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House. Oppenheimer, Mark. 2005. Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

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