The essential, ongoing role of the bar/bat mitzva

Rabbi Michael Hilton explores the history of Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies.

Bar Mitzva practice at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago. (photo credit: CHICAGO TRIBUNE/MCT)
Bar Mitzva practice at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.
(photo credit: CHICAGO TRIBUNE/MCT)
‘If someone has a son and he reaches the age of 13 years,” reads the manuscript of the teachings of Rabbi Yehiel of Paris, noted for his participation in the public disputations on faith in 1240, “the first time he stands up in the congregation to read from the Torah, his father should recite the blessing, ‘Blessed are you, Eternal God, who has redeemed me from punishment because of him.’” Then the source of this teaching is stated: “And the Gaon Rabbi Judah the son of Baruch [alive in the mid-11th century], stood up in the synagogue and recited this blessing the first time his son stood up to read from the Torah. And this blessing is obligatory.”
From this text, which author Rabbi Michael Hilton reproduces in his volume as the initial reference to bar mitzva, we see clearly that this observance has been deeply rooted in our tradition for almost 900 years.
Hilton, in his very well-constructed Bar Mitzvah: A History, begins with the first documented instance of one, providing a most informative historical discussion of this ritual for Jewish youth, then offering some key thoughts as to what he believes is the continuing significance to the bar and bat mitzva celebration in today’s world.
In addition to everything he emphasizes in over 100 pages, including the numerous levels of religious faith to which these young people can rise, he refers to a sociological reason adumbrated in contemporary times. Since family life has become “difficult and often troubled” in the 21st century, he underlines, bar and bat mitzvas can play both an essential and ongoing role in the important constellation of existence.
“By creating the myth of an unchanging tradition that can be passed on in its entirety, bar and bat mitzvot require participants to act as if their family lives were stable, in the hope of modeling and even creating permanence amid the fragility of existence. For a fleeting moment, everything in the world becomes as we would like it to be.”
Hilton is a realist along with being a very learned rabbi, so he knows that these ceremonies will only work if there are various types of cooperation. “The ongoing setting of a balance that works is the key to the future popularity of bar and bat mitzvah.
Without involvement of family on the one hand, and teachers and community on the other, the ceremony would be impossible.
And for every family and every child, the terms of the deal must be negotiated individually.”
“Popularity” and “let’s make a deal” become the “key” to this religious maturity service today. If the pressure is too great, read on for what could happen.
THIS WAS my experience: On a particular Shabbat morning four decades ago, as Hagbaha and Gelila (lifting and rolling the Torah scroll) were being executed, unbeknown to the cantor and myself, the young bar mitzva boy left the bima – exiting side-door to the street, into the park, quickly hiding himself along the shores of Pennsylvania’s Brandywine River.
Ushers sent out a search patrol; the cantor chanted the Haftara and led the service to return the Sefer Torah to the ark. Not a single pause occurred – this “deal” still had a chance. A brief dvar Torah by me; thankfully, during Musaf, an usher who had found the lad in the deeply wooded area along the river brought him back.
After Musaf, before “Ein Keloheinu,” the bar mitzva boy gave his dvar Torah, which he had written with me.
Everyone shouted “Mazal tov!” and threw candy.
As the rabbis of the Middle Ages developed a ceremony in which they would introduce a young man to the community, the specific rules for bar mitzva came into practice. Reading the parsha was one potent act that could mark the ceremony. Chanting the Haftara was essential; leading the tefillot had much significance; putting on tefillin for the first time complemented the whole event, with the hope of a daily religious ritual act.
Of course, as the Gaon Rabbi Judah demonstrated, the father made his special blessing. A bar mitzva of this nature worked for a few hundred years prior to the “enlightenment,” which offered a major challenge to Jewish ceremony.
As the Reform Movement began to rise in popularity in the 19th century, as a way to remain Jewish without making any real sacrifices in the modern world, the bar mitzva ceremony was eliminated and confirmation on Shavuot was substituted. The author, product of a liberal-Reform synagogue, never had a bar mitzva – and was just confirmed. That ceremony provided the opportunity for both girls and boys to be affirmed into the faith.
While the Reform approach was front and center and highly publicized, the Orthodox bar mitzva continued in the shtetls, in the new metropolitan congregations refusing to permit the young man religious freedom. These efforts, Hilton suggests, had a most positive impact, ensuring the advancement of another Jewish generation.
“Bar mitzvah is the culmination of the first level of Hebrew studies, in which the 13 year old demonstrates in a personal religious manner what his faith means to him.”
In terms of young girls, the great Jewish thinker of the last century, Prof. Mordechai Kaplan, created a bat mitzva for his daughter Judith in 1921. He reminded the rabbis and lay leaders of the ’20s that even the great Rashi had let his daughters put on tefillin.
Hilton explains well how the revered Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was the religious pioneer in the crowning of bat mitzva as a cornerstone in a girl’s maturation. A quote of his on this subject illustrates this, “Those who oppose celebrations upon girls’ coming of age help transgressors accuse the scholars of Israel of depriving the daughters of Israel, and discriminating between boys and girls.”
Hilton does remind us how a ceremony, at 12 and 13, could have wider social and sociological implications. Newfangled elements such as ice sculptures, boys’ and girls’ statues designed out of chopped liver and going on safari certainly appeared to remove the holiness from the ceremony.
The author describes how these overindulgent ceremonies were neutralized, though they still can be witnessed at times; he also provides insight into the “service to humankind” aspect integrated into many bar and bat mitzvas today.
Indeed, Arnine Cumsky Weiss, a noted sign-language interpreter and author, interviewed hundreds of people of all ages whose ceremonies infused a glow into the lives of others – sometimes feeding the hungry, sometimes dedicating hours to those with deformities, sometimes raising hundreds and thousands of dollars specifically for needy. She then wrote two books with fabulous stories of kindness performed by individuals who made their bar or bat mitzva ceremony an event never to be forgotten.
I encourage you to read Rabbi Hilton’s book. Not only is it most informative, but the volume may give you ideas to put into practice, as you work with your children on shaping their groundbreaking entry into a Jewish world they will truly love.