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Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah

Bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah are the rites recognizing the beginning of responsibility for carrying out the religious commandments of Judaism, ordinarily celebrated at puberty, age thirteen for boys, age twelve for girls. "Bar" (m.) and "bat" (f.) stand for "son" or "daughter" but, more broadly, "one who is subject to," and "mitzvah" means "commandment"—hence, one who is now obligated to carry out religious duties and is regarded as mature in the setting of the duties imposed by the Torah. The occasion is celebrated in synagogue worship by according to the young person for the first time a principal honor of the liturgy. Specifically, the bar/bat mitzvah is called to participate in the public declamation of the weekly passage of the Torah (here, Pentateuch) and given the honor of reciting the corresponding lection of the prophets. The practice of including both sexes in the rite began in the United States with the Reconstructionist movement and is virtually universal in non-Orthodox synagogues. Orthodox Judaism does not provide for calling women to participate in the declamation of the Torah except when women alone are present, but provision for a bat mitzvah observance is made in many integrationist Orthodox synagogues. In Orthodox synagogues the bat mitzvah has yet to reach a standard definition, whether solely in the home or partly in the synagogue. In the state of Israel the bat mitzvah is marked by calling the girl's father and brothers to the Torah.

Because Judaism lays heavy emphasis on genealogical continuity of the children of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives, the bar/bat mitzvah rite bears deep meaning for parents and grandparents, who see in the community's recognition of the youngster a mark of the continuity of the heritage of holy Israel. That explains why a family celebration is associated with the occasion, relatives coming from distant places to participate in the rite. In some places elaborate parties, comparable to weddings, with meals and dancing, are held as well. When the bar/bat mitzvah is called to the Torah, the parents and grandparents participate as well. When the father ascends, he recites the blessing "Blessed is He who has freed me from responsibility of this one." The parents commonly recite the blessing "Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who has kept us in life and sustained us and brought us to this occasion." In the same spirit, many Reform and Conservative congregations have adopted the rite of calling all practicing members of the older generation of a family to the altar and there symbolically handing the Torah scroll from one generation to the next, and finally to the bar/bat mitzvah. In that way the place of the newcomer to responsibility in the chain of tradition is established. It is common for the family of the bar/bat mitzvah to provide a celebration meal at the end of the services.

From the youngster's advent at the age of responsibility, he or she is counted for a quorum (ten persons) for worship and is expected to participate regularly in worship, and those who have reached the age of carrying out the commandments also lead the community in worship. In the United States it is not uncommon for the bar/bat mitzvah to lead part of the services on the occasion of the rite itself. The bar/bat mitzvah also may give an address on the occasion and expound the passage of the Torah read that Sabbath. The address ordinarily includes thanks to parents for nurture and guests for participating in the rite. In the State of Israel some bar mitzvah celebrations take place at the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, and on occasion Diaspora families conduct the rite there as well.

Although forms of celebration have changed over time, the recognition of puberty as the advent of responsibility to keep the commandments is well attested from ancient times. In the Mishnah (M. Nedarim 5:6) the vows of a boy from thirteen and a day are binding. Abraham rejected his father's idols when he reached age thirteen, and Jacob and Esau parted company at that same age; from then on, the bar/bat mitzvah youngster is expected to fast on the Day of Atonement and to don phylacteries at morning worship.

Confirmation, a variation on the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony developed by Reform Judaism in nineteenth-century Germany and commonly practiced in the United States, sometimes substitutes for and often supplements the bar/bat mitzvah rite. The rite is carried on for groups of young people, not individuals, ordinarily at sixteen or seventeen, when they have reached a more mature age. It is generally observed on the festival of Weeks (Shavuot) and marks the graduation of an entire class of a religious school. The confirmands read from the Scriptures and declare their commitment to Judaism, receiving certificates that they are accepted into the Jewish community.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Jewish Identity; Jewish Observance; Judaism; Religious Communities; Rites of Passage; Ritual; Synagogue.

Bibliography

Cardozo, Arlene Rossen. Jewish Family Celebrations:Shabbat Festivals and Traditional Ceremonies. 1982.

Maslin, Simeon J., ed. Shaarei Mitzvah: Gates of Mitzvah. 1979.

Neusner, Jacob. The Enchantments of Judaism: Rites ofTransformation from Birth Through Death. 1987.

Trepp, Leo. The Complete Book of Jewish Observance. 1980.

Jacob Neusner

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