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Classic Jewish sources recognize that children mature at different stages.

My son's bar mitzva is coming up. He and his friends don't seem mature enough, both physically and emotionally, to take on adult responsibilities. Is he really equally obligated in mitzvot like any male adult? Also, for scheduling convenience, can I have the party before his 13th birthday? - L.C., Jerusalem The tension that underlies your question usually arises in awkward bar-mitzva speeches when the pre-pubescent boy's voice cracks as he declares, "Today, I am a man!" (Note to parents: Scratch that line!) Furthermore, the modern conception of adolescence contends that teenagers do not assume full adult responsibilities until a later age, such as 18 or 21. Classic Jewish sources also recognized that children mature at different stages. The Bible, for example, often speaks of 20 as the age for people to take on communal responsibilities, such as serving in the army (Exodus 30) or in the Temple (I Chronicles 20). Even the classic source that determines 13 as the bar mitzva (Hebrew for "obligated in commandments") age for legal majority recognizes that intellectual and emotional maturity develops over a period of years. The Mishna states, "Five years is the age to begin studying Scripture, 10 for Mishna, 13 for the obligation of the commandments, 15 for Talmud study, 18 for marriage, 20 for seeking a livelihood..." (Avot 5:24). While this mishna might seem to definitively affirm 13 as the age of majority, medieval and modern commentators alike, including R. Menahem Hameiri, have noted that this passage (along with the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot) is a very late emendation that did not appear in ancient and many medieval manuscripts. A second conflicting mishna, moreover, contends that two pubic hairs are the criterion for a child to become obligated in mitzvot (Nida 6:11). While R. Asher ben Yehiel argued that 13 was the age-old accepted age for puberty (Responsa 16:1), the medieval Tosafists contended that physiological differences in earlier eras sometimes might advance the age of majority to nine or 10 (Tosafot Sanhedrin 69a). Based on numerous talmudic texts, Prof. Yitzhak Gilat went so far to conclude that the early sages did not have a definitive age of majority. Rather, the appropriate age of obligation depended on the nature of the mitzva. A young child was obligated, for example, to perform purely physical actions, such as dwelling in a succa or donning tefillin. Commandments requiring greater intellectual capabilities, like taking vows, began with children above the age of 11 or 12. Teenagers, however, could not receive judicial punishments, however, until the age of 20, indicating that moral culpability was reserved for adults. Be that as it may, the age of majority at 13 became standardized toward the end of the talmudic period. The sage Rava created a legal assumption (hazaka) that a boy of 13 or a girl of 12 has developed two pubic hairs, thereby eliminating the need to check each child's development (Nida 46a). This eliminated the variability between different mitzvot and the subjectivity within each child's physical maturation. Not all decisors, however, fully accepted Rava's legal assumption, particularly when these children attempt to fulfill biblical commandments for others, such as reciting Grace after Meals. The standard practice, however, assumes that all 13 year-olds are fully obligated in mitzvot like adult males (Mishna Berura 169:27). Children below the age of majority, however, remain obligated to fulfill many mitzvot for the sake of educational training and religious inculcation. Many talmudists believe that this obligation falls exclusively on their parents, for the covenantal commitments exclude insufficiently mature children. Others, however, contend that the children themselves remain obligated to fulfill these mitzvot, yet remain absolved from penal culpability for their actions. Bar mitzva parties are intended to celebrate the child's entrance into the world of mitzvot, just as the meal following a brit mila commemorates the child's entrance into the covenant. As such, the celebration should ideally take place on the actual birthday. However, when accompanied by Torah learning, the celebrations may take place after the actual birthday (Yam Shel Shlomo BK 7:37). While holding the party before the actual birthday is not forbidden, it would entirely miss the intended focus of the celebration. The widespread abuse of bar mitzva celebrations as an excuse for ostentatious birthday parties led Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to desire eliminating these meals, since they lacked the proper decorum for a mitzva celebration (Igrot Moshe OC 1:104). Other decisors affirmed the educational value of these parties, and contended that they should be held for both boys and girls alike (Yehaveh Da'at 2:29). Yet all urged their adherents to maintain proper etiquette. As contemporary rabbis like to say, "Our bar mitzvas need to place more emphasis on the mitzva and less emphasis on the bar!" The writer, editor of TraditionOnline.org, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University. [email protected]