Bar / Bat Mitsvah
Bar Mitsvah – an Aramaic term which is literally, ‘son of commandment’ – means, “one who is subject to the commandments”. When a boy reaches 13 (or 12 for girls, once she has had her first period), they are considered to then be subject to the commandments in Torah which apply to adults. The term actually refers to the boy or girl him/herself, not the ceremony. It is wrong to think that, if one does not undergo this rite of pasage, that one is not legally an adult Israelite; the mere fact of a boy attaining 13, or of a girl undergoing her first period, means they become Israelite adults – you actually don’t have to be ‘Bar Mitsvahed’ (or more properly, ‘become a Bar Mitsvah).
The origin of this ritual is found in the Talmud (more specifically the Mishnah), and many of the customs surrounding the ceremony date back no further than the 13th and 14th centuries. By contrast in ancient times, it was not unknown for even minors to read from Torah and give their opinions on what they have read. Such children were seen as young prodigies, rather than being possessed of any kind of divinity.
Normally, Talmidaism is mistrustful and apprehensive about things that have come from the Oral Law. However, for psychological and spiritual reasons, it is important to have some rite of passage which marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.
In modern Jewish life, especially that of secular Jews, Bar Mitsvah parties have become burdensomely expensive affairs, and have lost the original spiritual intent of the custom. Therefore in keeping with the general ethos of Talmidaism, any ceremony should remain a moderate affair; it is not an occasion to display your wealth before others.
In addition, Talmudic Rabbinical Judaism views children below the age of 13 as not being responsible for their faults or sins, and therefore their parents are liable and punishable for their sins (reflected in the older term for Bar Mitsvah – Bar `Onshin, another Aramaic term which means ‘subject to punishment’). This is completely against the mindset of the Israelite religion, whereby the individual is always held responsible for their own actions. The issue is not that the parent is held responsible (parents after all do share some responsibility for the bad behaviour of their children); the problem is rather that the child is deemed by rabbinics to have no responsibility or culpability whatsoever. This is not a good position to take for an ancient faith which teaches individuals to take responsibility for their actions.
The oldest traditions
The oldest rabbinic traditions surrounding coming of age are recorded in the Talmud with respect to the customs in Jerusalem in late antiquity:
“In Jerusalem they are accustomed to initiate their children to fast on the Atonement Day, a year or so before their maturity; and then, when the age has arrived, to bring the Bar Mitsvah before the priest or scribe for blessing, encouragement, and prayer, that he may be granted a portion in the Torah and in the doing of good works. Whosoever is of elevated status in the town is expected to pray for him as he bows down to him to receive his blessing.”
(Masseket Soferim xviii. 5)
” …. as soon as he becomes of age [his father] brings him into the school and synagogue (‘bet ha-midrash’ and ‘bet ha-k’nesset’), in order that henceforth he may praise the name of God, reciting the ‘Barekhu’ (Benediction) preceding the reading from the Torah.”
From the above, it can be seen that the Bar Mitsvah publicly pronounced a benediction on the occasion of his entrance into maturity.
Physical and psychological changes for boys begin to take place around the ages of 13 and 14. This age was deemed to be the age of responsibility for boys in the ancient Israelite community. Psychologically, this is the age when the father and other male relatives take more responsibility for mentoring him.
It is suggested that a year or so before their 13th birthday, boys of similar age could come together in regular groups, or even spend a few days in retreat, so that they can ask questions, be taught the responsibilities of adulthood, and understand the transition they are undergoing. Then, throughout the coming year, the same group can periodically meet to further their studies in Torah and in the Israelite way of life.
Then on his 13th birthday, a boy can have a special family meal; also, a personal gift from one’s father, as well as family gifts such as a tallit can be given.
The transition between childhood and adulthood is obviously more marked in girls. There are commandments in Torah which are specifically for women once they have had their first period and thereafter. It is logical to say that a girl becomes ‘subject to the commandments’ (Bat Mitsvah) once she has had her first period. While she is undergoing her first period, she is exempt from any form of housework and ritual duties (for reasons of ritual purity – she also cannot touch ritual or holy objects); then once her period is over, on the 8th day, sheimmerses in a miqveh (ritual bath). This is called taharah, meaning ‘ritual purification’.
I suggest that the day of her taharah should be something meaningful and beautiful; a woman should not be ashamed of her body and what happens to it during the cycles of life. A family meal and a personal gift from one’s mother would be a suggestion to make the occasion special for her. A woman’s tallit would be an appropriate gift from the rest of the family.
Again, it is suggested that a year or so before girls are due to have their first period, girls of similar age could come together on a regular basis, or spend a few days in retreat, so that they can be taught what is shortly to happen to their bodies, their physical changes, and also the general responsibilities of adulthood. They can ask questions and have intelligent answers given. Again, throughout the coming year, the same group can periodically meet to further their studies in Torah and in the Israelite way of life.
Once her first taharah has been performed, the young woman can read from Torah. The reading from Torah does not mark her being Bat Mitsvah (ie ‘subject to the commandments’), since the mere fact that she was having a period made her such. While a woman is having a period, according to Torah, she is exempt from performing any religious duties.
Change of terminology
Since a woman is technically Bat Mitsvah (subject to the commandments) as soon as she is having her first period, and since she cannot perform any religious duties while she is having her period (eg read from Torah), it is a misnomer to call the coming of age ceremony ‘bat mitsvah’.
Some Reform and Liberal Jewish communities have realised some of the drawbacks of Bar / Bat Mitsvah, and have instead instituted something called ‘Confirmation’. However, this is too Christian in its terminology.
It would be better to call it ‘bat acharayyut’ (a Hebrew term meaning ‘subject to religious responsibility’). Similarly a boy would be ben acharayyut. This obviously needs some debate within the Talmidi community before we officially take on anything.
A tentative suggestion for Talmidi custom
Modern bar / bat Mitsvah parties have become a financial burden on parents, an opportunity for the wealthy to parade their riches before others, and have often lost their religious significance. On occasion they have even become opportunities for riotous behaviour and excessive drinking. I suggest that we limit what is done to maintain the dignity and spiritual aspect of the occasion.
Whereas the 13th birthday family meal for a boy, and the immediate post-taharah family meal for a girl, are just that – family occasions, the acharayyut gatherings would be an excellent opportunity for the community to welcome newly adult boys and girls into the wider community. To save on costs, all the boys and girls who reach adulthood in any given Israelite year could hold their acharayyut gatherings together, all at the same time.
A year before this is due to happen, boys and girls could spend a few days in separate classes or retreats, as described above. They can spend the coming year preparing to live the life of an adult Israelite, learning about the festivals, fasting on the Day of the Atonements, moral and ethical responsibilities etc.
When the new adult reaches the age of responsibility, to limit the costly burden and potential ostentatiousness, I suggest that we limit any celebratory meal to immediate relatives, on a boy’s 13th birthday itself, or on the 8th day after a girl’s taharah – again, debate is needed on this.
Then on a Sabbath of the community’s choosing, all the new adults would be blessed in the synagogue by the serving priest, ministering nazirite or ordained scribe, with a community leader present (that is, asking God to bless them). He/she bows first, and can then be given ‘blessing, encouragement, and prayer, that he/she may be granted a portion in the Torah and in the doing of good works.’
Then all the new adults can say the blessing together before the reading of the Torah. It seems that in ancient times, the duty of the new adult was concentrated on reading the blessing before the reading of the Torah, rather than on actually reading the Torah itself; again, this needs some debate and agreement.
It is beyond debate that some kind of coming of age ceremony has its place within the Israelite community. On the other hand, it is also beyond argument that the current ceremony originates within late rabbinical Judaism and the Oral Law. Also, that modern secular Judaism abuses the custom with ostentatious parties.
We need something that has a practical basis to it, is helpful in spiritual and psychological terms, is modest in its application, and is thoroughly grounded in Israelite culture. Coming of age in ancient times was not accompanied by expensive or riotous banquets; I suggest we pay heed to this fact.