The term for the religious rite by which a Jewish boy is formally initiated into the religious community and assumes the duties and responsibilities of a Jew. The words bar mitzvah (late Hebrew bar miṣwâ ) literally mean, "son of precept." Though the expression is found in the Talmud (Baba Meẓi’a 96a), it appears to have been used there simply to mean every adult Jew. The use of the word in the modern sense does not go back much beyond the 14th century. It was first so employed in the works of a German Jew, Mordecai ben Hillel.
Origin and Significance. Leopold Löw has established the fact that bar mitzvah was a fixed custom in Germany in the 14th century. Löw was of the opinion that the practice of bar mitzvah could not be traced beyond this point in time. There is, however, some probability that in a rudimentary form at least, bar mitzvah derives from an earlier period. With the solemnization of this rite, the Jewish boy is considered to have attained religious maturity. He may henceforth be called up to fill the minyān, i.e., the required number of 10 necessary for holding congregational worship. The bar mitzvah ceremony takes place on the Sabbath following a boy's 13th birthday (reckoned according to the Jewish calendar). As in Roman custom, the age of puberty is taken as the time for assuming responsibility.
Ceremony. There are three phases to the bar mitzvah ceremony. First, the boy must read in public from the Pentateuch and the Prophets. Meanwhile the boy's father prays in silence: "Blessed be he who has taken the responsibility of this child's doing from me." This disavowal of the father's further responsibility for his son's sins is omitted by the Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese Jews). Next follows an address given by the bar mitzvah boy. As a general rule, this talk is prepared by the rabbi or teacher and is memorized by the boy. Lastly there is the Se’udah or festive meal. It is customary at this celebration to give presents to the bar mitzvah boy. The bar mitzvah ceremony should be preceded by a period of training in which the boy is schooled in, among other things, the principal duties and observances of Jewish life.
Reform Judaism in the last century replaced bar mitzvah with Confirmation to which both boys and girls are admitted. This ceremony is held annually for all those of age at Shabuoth, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost). In some Reform and Conservative congregations both Confirmation and bar mitzvah are held. In some synagogues too, bath mitzvah ("daughter of precept") is observed. This is a rite developed for girls that generally corresponds to bar mitzvah.
Bibliography: l. lÖw, Die Lebensalter in der jüdischen Literatur (Beiträge zur jüdischen Alterthumskunde 2; Szegedin 1875). National Association of Temple Educators, Confirmation Practices (Educational Research Survey 2; New York 1959). c. roth, "Bar-Mitzvah: Its History and Its Associations," Bar-Mitzvah Illustrated, ed. a. i. katsh (New York 1955). i. levitats, Communal Regulation of Bar Mitzvah (New York 1949). j. arlow, "A Psychoanalytic Study of a Religious Initiation Rite: Bar Mitzvah," The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (New York 1945) 6:353–374.
[j. c. turro]
bar mitz·vah / ˌbär ˈmitsvə/ • n. the religious initiation ceremony of a Jewish boy who has reached the age of 13 and is regarded as ready to observe religious precepts and eligible to take part in public worship. ∎ the boy undergoing this ceremony. • v. [tr.] (usu. be bar mitzvahed) celebrate the bar mitzvah of (a boy).