Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation
Jews become responsible for observing the commandments at the age of 13 for boys, 12 for girls
This age is marked by a celebration called bar (or bat) mitzvah
Some synagogues have an additional celebration called confirmation
Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah
"Bar Mitzvah" literally means "son of the commandment." "Bar" is "son" in
Aramaic, which used to be the vernacular of the
Jewish people. "Mitzvah" is "commandment" in both
Hebrew and Aramaic. "Bat" is daughter in Hebrew and Aramaic. (The
Ashkenazic pronunciation is "bas").
Technically, the term refers to the child who is coming of age, and it is
strictly correct to refer to someone as "becoming a bar (or bat) mitzvah."
However, the term is more commonly used to refer to the coming of age ceremony
itself, and you are more likely to hear that someone is "having a bar mitzvah"
or "invited to a bar mitzvah."
So what does it mean to become a bar mitzvah? Under Jewish Law, children are
not obligated to observe the commandments, although they are encouraged to do
so as much as possible to learn the obligations they will have as adults. At
the age of 13 (12 for girls), children become obligated to observe the
commandments. The bar mitzvah ceremony formally, publicly marks the assumption
of that obligation, along with the corresponding right to take part in leading
religious services, to count in a
minyan (the minimum number of people needed to
perform certain parts of religious services), to form binding contracts, to
testify before religious courts and to marry.
A Jewish boy automatically becomes a bar mitzvah upon reaching the age of 13
years, and a girl upon reaching the age of 12 years. No ceremony is needed to
confer these rights and obligations. The popular bar mitzvah ceremony is not
required, and does not fulfill any commandment. It is certainly not, as one
episode of the
would have you believe, necessary to have a bar mitzvah in order to be
considered a Jew! The bar or bat mitzvah is a relatively modern innovation, not
mentioned in the Talmud, and the elaborate
ceremonies and receptions that are commonplace today were unheard of as
recently as a century ago.
In its earliest and most basic form, a bar mitzvah is the celebrant's first
on a Saturday shortly after the child's 13th birthday, or even the Monday or
Thursday weekday services immediately after the child's 13th birthday, the
celebrant is called up to the Torah to recite a
blessing over the
Today, it is common practice for the bar mitzvah celebrant to do much more than
just say the blessing. It is most common for the celebrant to learn the entire
haftarah portion, including its traditional
chant, and recite that. In some congregations, the celebrant reads the entire
weekly torah portion, or leads part of the service, or leads the congregation
in certain important prayers. The celebrant is also generally required to make
a speech, which traditionally begins with the phrase "today I am a man." The
father traditionally recites a blessing thanking G-d
for removing the burden of being responsible for the son's sins (because now
the child is old enough to be held responsible for his own actions).
In modern times, the religious service is followed by a reception that is often
as elaborate as a wedding reception.
In Orthodox and
women are not permitted to participate in
religious services in these ways, so a bat mitzvah, if celebrated at all, is
usually little more than a party. In other
movements of Judaism, the girls do exactly the
same thing as the boys.
It is important to note that a bar mitzvah is not the goal of a Jewish
education, nor is it a graduation ceremony marking the end of a person's Jewish
education. We are obligated to study Torah
throughout our lives. To emphasize this point, some rabbis require a bar
mitzvah student to sign an agreement promising to continue Jewish education
after the bar mitzvah.
Sadly, an alarming number of Jewish parents today view the bar or bat mitzvah
as the sole purpose of Jewish education, and treat it almost as a Jewish hazing
ritual: I had to go through it, so you have to go through it, but don't worry,
it will all be over soon and you'll never have to think about this stuff again.
Confirmation is a somewhat less widespread coming of age ritual that occurs
when a child is 16 or 18. Confirmation was originally developed by the
Reform movement, which scorned the idea that a 13
year old child was an adult (but see explanation below). They
replaced bar and bat mitzvah with a confirmation ceremony at the age of 16 or
18. However, due to the overwhelming popularity of the bar or bat mitzvah, the
Reform movement has revived the practice. I don't know of any Reform
synagogues that do not encourage the practice
of bar and bat mitzvahs at age 13 today.
In some Conservative synagogues, however,
the confirmation concept has been adopted as a way to continue a child's Jewish
education and involvement for a few more years.
Is 13 an Adult?
Many people mock the idea that a 12 or 13 year old child is an adult, claiming
that it is an outdated notion based on the needs of an agricultural society.
This criticism comes from a misunderstanding of the significance of becoming a
Bar mitzvah is not about being a full adult in every sense of the word, ready
to marry, go out on your own, earn a living and raise children. The
Talmud makes this abundantly clear. In
Pirkei Avot, it is said that while 13 is the proper
age for fulfillment of the Commandments, 18 is the proper age for
marriage and 20 is the proper age for earning a
livelihood. Elsewhere in the Talmud, the proper age for marriage is said to be
Bar mitzvah is simply the age when a person is held responsible for his actions
and minimally qualified to marry. If you compare this to secular law, you will
find that it is not so very far from our modern notions of a child's maturity.
In Anglo-American common law, a child of the age of 14 is old enough to assume
many of the responsibilities of an adult, including minimal criminal liability.
Under United States law, 14 is the minimum age of employment for most
occupations (though working hours are limited so as not to interfere with
school). In many states, a fourteen year old can marry with parental consent.
Children of any age are permitted to testify in court, and children over the
age of 14 are permitted to have significant input into custody decisions in
cases of divorce. Certainly, a 13-year-old child is capable of knowing the
difference between right and wrong and of being held responsible for his
actions, and that is all it really means to become a bar mitzvah.
One of the most common questions I get on this site is: do you give gifts at a
bar or bat mitzvah, and if so, what kind of gifts?
Yes, gifts are commonly given. They are ordinarily given at the reception, not
at the service itself. Please keep in mind that a bar mitzvah is incorporated
into an ordinary sabbath service, and many of the people present at the service
may not be involved in the bar mitzvah.
The nature of the gift varies significantly depending on the community. At one
time, the most common gifts were a nice pen set or a college savings bond
(usually in multiples of $18, a number that is considered to be favorable in
Jewish tradition, see: Hebrew Alphabet:
Numerical Values). In many communities today, however, the gifts are the
same sort that you would give any child for his 13th birthday. It is best to
avoid religious gifts if you don't know what you're doing, but Jewish-themed
gifts are not a bad idea. For example, you might want to give a book that is a
biography of a Jewish person that the celebrant might admire. I hesitate to get
into specifics, for fear that some poor celebrant might find himself with
several copies of the same thing!
When in doubt, it never hurts to ask the parents or the synagogue's rabbi what
is customary within the community.
© Copyright 5756-5771 (1996-2011), Tracey R Rich
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