B'nai Mitzvah

The approach to B’nai Mitzvah at Congregation Beth Jacob is that it is a seminal first step in the life of a Jewish adult. It is not the end of one’s Jewish learning; rather, it is the beginning of opening one’s eyes to the questions and answers that Judaism provides to help each of us through life. B’nai Mitzvah study is more than simply learning the words and melodies for reading the Torah, Haftarah and Tfilot (prayers).  At CBJ, we find depth in the meaning behind the words and melodies, exploring the relevance these have to students and their families.  We attempt to create within everyone a sense of empathy with the Tfilot and with the other parts of the service.  We encourage parents and students to engage in dialogue about the meaning of the service, and Jewish texts.


ABOUT BAR/BAT MITZVAH

HISTORY OF BAR/BAT MITZVAH

YOUTH EDUCATION AT CBJ

CURRENT BAR/BAT MITZVAH DATES

 


ABOUT BAR/BAT MITZVAH

In Judaism, Bar and Bat Mitzvah are the terms to describe the coming of age of a Jewish boy or girl. According to Jewish law, when Jewish children reach the age of majority (generally thirteen years for boys and twelve for girls) they become responsible for their actions, and "become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah." In many Conservative and Reform synagogues, girls celebrate their Bat Mitzvahs at age 13, along with boys.  Prior to this, the child's parents are responsible for the child's adherence to Jewish law and tradition, and after this age, children bear their own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition, and ethics and are privileged to participate in all areas of Jewish community life.

Many people are surprised to find out that "becoming bar/bat mitzvah" happens automatically when a Jewish boy reaches the age of 13 and or a girl 12. The ceremony that today occupies center stage is actually a historical afterthought, with evidence of observance only from sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries. Because the ceremony marks reaching the age of majority, many traditional Jews observe it on the Sabbath immediately following the child's birthday.

For the rabbis, the significance of this life-changing moment lay in the child's new stage of physical, intellectual, and moral development. They saw 12 and 13 as the ages at which girls and boys, respectively, were no longer entirely subject to impulse, but were beginning to develop a conscience. The term bar/bat mitzvah--which means "obligated to perform the Jewish mitzvot (commandments)"--reflects the child's newfound capabilities and responsibilities.

Although the ceremony that communally affirms the child's coming of age is medieval in origin, there is evidence in rabbinic literature that the father may have recited a blessing when the child reached the age of majority. This blessing, called baruch she'p'tarani, thanks God for freeing the father from responsibility for the child's behavior, signaling a transition of control and hence responsibility from parent to child.

The relatively late development of the bar mitzvah ceremony probably derives from changes in communal customs regarding what ritual activities a child was allowed to perform. According to the Talmud, which was completed around the sixth century CE, boys were permitted to perform many ritual acts, for example, donning tefillin (phylacteries), whenever they had developed the necessary expertise and were able to understand the ritual's significance. Later this window of opportunity closed, and children were not allowed to perform these rituals until they had reached the age of majority. At this point, a ceremony celebrating the first performance of these rituals began to make sense.

The bat mitzvah ceremony observed in the liberal movements came much later. It grew out of a broader societal focus on women's rights, with the first American bat mitzvah occurring in 1922. The concept of a bat mitzvah ceremony within traditional Judaism is far more recent. Because Jewish law limits a woman's religious responsibilities primarily to commandments that are not time-bound (meaning, not required to be performed at a particular time), a woman's Jewish activity occurred primarily within the private, familial realm rather than the public, communal one. Because women were not required to perform any overt and visible mitzvot as were men, a ceremony made little sense. Yet in the late 20th century, as observant women have become more Judaically educated, they too are pressing to create meaningful rituals for bat mitzvah.

Because the rabbis specified no ritual requirements for the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, except for the parental blessing, the roles played by the bar/bat mitzvah at the service and even the timing of the service itself can vary widely. The typical bar/bat mitzvah takes place during the Sabbath morning service, where the child is called up to say the blessings over the Torah--his or her first aliyah. Children may read from the Torah; chant the haftarah, the weekly prophetic portion; lead some or all of the congregational service; and offer a personal interpretation of the weekly Torah portion, called a d'var Torah. The bar/bat mitzvah takes on similar roles when the ceremony occurs on a holiday, on Rosh Chodesh--the first day of the new Hebrew month, on a Monday or Thursday morning, or on a Sabbath afternoon. The Torah is not read on Friday nights.

The year of intensive preparation that precedes the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony itself signals a change in the relationship and "balance of power" between the parent and child along with the immense changes in the child's own physical and intellectual persona. On a religious level these changes are acknowledged by the baruch she'p'tarani blessing. On a psychological level, it is the parents who had better acknowledge them or beware! This period is one of intense negotiation, requiring new models of decision making as well as the adoption of new familial roles. When a child misses this rite of passage, he or she certainly is still bar mitzvah, but the chance is seemingly gone for a spiritual coming of age that mirrors the physical, intellectual, and emotional milestones of the new teenager.


HISTORY OF BAR/BAT MITZVAH

Although the Talmud uses the term bar mitzvah to signify a boy's coming of age, the only accompanying ritual was a blessing pronounced by the father thanking God for ending his responsibility for his son's observance of the mitzvot (commandments). Yet the talmudic understanding of majority points more to the child's new intellectual and moral capabilities than to his new ritual responsibilities. In fact, even minors were permitted to perform many public mitzvot such as being called up to the Torah for an aliyah (reciting the blessings on the Torah) or wearing tefillin (phylacteries) as soon as they were capable of performing them with understanding.

Only later, in the Middle Ages, when the minor was generally not permitted to perform these mitzvot, did it make sense to celebrate their first public observance. By the 14th century, sources mention a boy being called up to the Torah for the first time on the Sabbath coinciding with or following his 13th birthday. By the 17th century, boys were also reading Torah and delivering talks, often on talmudic learning, at an afternoon seudat mitzvah (ritual meal). Today the speech, usually a commentary on the weekly Torah portion, generally takes place during the morning service.

The ritual focus of the bar mitzvah was a source of discomfort to religious reformers in 19th-century Europe. They promoted an additional ceremony (influenced by the Christian catechism) called confirmation, which focused on knowledge of the principles of the Jewish faith. Although first conceived for boys only, girls were included after about the first decade. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a leader of Reform Judaism in America, introduced confirmation in the United States in 1846 in Albany, New York.

Originally linked to home and school, the ceremony quickly moved to the synagogue and found a home in the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. Shavuot worked well, due both to its timing at the end of the secular school year and its thematic connection with the Torah, the story of the Jewish people and its relationship with God. To distinguish confirmation from bar mitzvah, its supporters emphasized its focus on doctrine rather than ritual, its coeducational scope, and its occurrence at age 16 or 17 (serving, thereby, to prolong the child's Jewish education).

Although the popularity of bar mitzvah may have waned in liberal circles during the heyday of confirmation, it has enjoyed a rebirth in recent decades. At the same time, bat mitzvah has developed as a ritual alternative for girls in the Conservative and the Reform movements.

Although many associate the first bat mitzvah ceremony with that of Judith Kaplan, daughter of Reconstructionism's founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, in 1922, there is evidence of earlier synagogue celebrations in Italy, France, and Poland. Even Kaplan's ceremony was a pale imitation of what was to come. Judith chanted the blessings over the Torah and then read a passage in Hebrew from a printed Bible, yet the innovative spark of her bat mitzvah was its focus on the ritual involvement and coming of age of one girl. Whereas many early bat mitzvahs, and even some today, took place at a Friday night service, during which the girl chanted the next morning's haftarah (the weekly prophetic portion), today bar and bat mitzvahs are virtually identical in most liberal synagogues.

Among traditional Jews, bat mitzvah has been slower to develop as a ritual observance, although the coming-of-age aspect was often affirmed by a small party or festive meal at the girl's home. More recently, in liberal Orthodox environments, as the Jewish education of girls has become nearly identical to that of boys, girls have begun to observe the occasion by giving talks from the pulpit after the service, either on the Torah portion or on some aspect of women's ritual involvement.

Another influence on the development of bat mitzvah within Orthodoxy is the women's prayer group, where women lead services (amended to leave out prayers requiring the presence of ten men, a minyan) and read Torah and haftarah. These services offer role models for women's ritual involvement as well as a venue for bat mitzvahs where girls can have an "aliyah" (with amended blessings), read Torah, and even lead services.

As early as the 1950s, there were intimations that men who had not had a bar mitzvah during adolescence felt Jewishly incomplete. In 1971, the first "belated" bar mitzvah was held and soon, as part of the movement for gender equality in Judaism, women also began participating in this new ceremony of adult identity affirmation. Either individually or in groups, men and women studied for a period of time and then ceremonially reaffirmed their connections with Judaism at a Shabbat morning service. Synagogues began to institute more formal programs of study that enabled not only women, but also men and converts, to study about Jewish history, text, liturgy, and ritual, and to learn to read Hebrew and chant from the Torah and haftarah.

Content reprinted with permission from myjewishlearning.com


YOUTH EDUCATION AT CBJ

To learn more about our Religious School programs, click here.


CURRENT BAR/BAT MITZVAH DATES

B’nai Mitzvah dates are set by Ritual Director Bill Futornick at the beginning of the 5th grade year. Dates will be selected based on the student’s 13th birthday (according to the Hebrew date). 

Follow this link to the current B'nai Mitzvah dates.  This page is updated frequently - check back for updates!


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Contact Bill Futornick, Ritual Director, by email or at 366-8481, if you have questions about B'nai Mitzvah at Congregation Beth Jacob.