Evolution of the Bar Mitzvah
by Rivka C. Berman
the beginning of Jewish history, when Jews were already celebrating the
holidays we would recognize: Shabbat, Rosh Hashannah and Sukkot, they
were not having bar mitzvah parties.
c. 350 B.C.E. – 70 C.E.
Here’s how the bar/bat mitzvah tradition began… During the second Temple
period boys, who completed their first Yom Kippur fast, were blessed by
the elders of the Jewish people.
c. 200 C.E.
While the Mishna, the collection of Jewish halachic traditions, was
being created, the thirteenth year of life was notable as the age of
fulfillment of mitzvot. Until that year, a child is not responsible to
fulfill the mitzvot (Mishna Avot 5:22). During that period, a boy who
reached that age was granted several legal rights. He could be a member
of a Jewish court, could buy and sell real estate, and his vows were
c. 200-500 C.E.
As the Gemara was being compiled, the phrase “bar mitzvah” was used just
twice. And it didn’t refer to a coming of age celebration, because in
this era boys could be called up to the Torah – even as minors (Megilla
23a). In the Gemara’s context, “bar mitzvah” meant someone who observes
the commandments. Thirteen was significant as the “bar onshin” the age a
boy was held accountable for wrongdoing.
In the discussions of the Gemara, a girl was considered a ketana, a
minor, from ages 3-12. Between 12 and 12 ˝ a girl became a ne’ara, a
young woman, and any vow she made from then on was valid. From 12 ˝
onward a girl was termed a bogeret, and was responsible to perform the
mitzvot. (Sota 47a, Sanhedrin 107a)
c. 1100 C.E.
Aliyah, being called up to the Torah, which is now regarded as one of
the basic privileges of reaching bar mitzvah age, was not always
associated with turning thirteen. A boy could be given an aliyah once he
understood the significance of what he was doing, according to
Maimonides, a twelfth century commentator on the Torah, as well as a
royal physician and philosopher.
c. 1200 C.E.
Until this time, a minor could wear tefillin as soon as he could be
trusted to treat them respectfully. (Tefillin are leather boxes that
contain parchment scrolls inscribed with Torah passages. During prayer
services, one is bound to the forehead and another to the upper arm.) In
what is now known as Germany, the rules changed and a boy had to reach
thirteen before wearing tefillin.
c. 1300-1500 C.E.
Bar Mitzvah eases itself into its modern definition during these
centuries. Boys are no longer counted as part of the minyan or called up
to the Torah. A thirteenth birthday meant beginning to participate in
these rituals, and the day became a cause for celebration. To
demonstrate their new maturity, boys began delivering speeches about the
Torah portion. (The dreaded “speech” is born.)
c. 1600-1700 C.E.
Boys were granted an additional perk. Once they hit bar mitzvah age,
they could lead prayer services.
In Spain and Portugal where the Inquisition lead to the outward
conversion of many Jews to Catholicism, it became traditional to tell
children about their secret Jewish heritage once they reached the age of
bar or bat mitzvah.
In France and Italy girls begin to deliver Torah talks about their
portion at their bat mitzvah celebrations, which they celebrate at
twelve years old. Halachic tradition views girls reaching adulthood
earlier than boys because they tend to physically mature at younger age.
Judith Kaplan is the first girl to read her Torah portion from the bima.
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