Bar / Bat Mitsvah
Bar Mitsvah – an Aramaic term which is literally, ‘son of commandment’ – means, “subject to the commandments”. When a boy reaches 13 (or 12 for girls), they are considered to then be subject to the commandments in Torah which apply to adults. The term actually refers to the boy or girl him/herself, not the ceremony. It is wrong to think that, if one does not undergo this rite of pasage, that one is not legally an adult Israelite; the mere fact of a boy attaining 13, or of a girl undergoing her first period, means they become Israelite adults – you actually don’t have to be ‘Bar Mitsvahed’ (or more properly, ‘become a Bar Mitsvah).
The origin of this ritual is found in the Talmud (more specifically the Mishnah), and many of the customs surrounding the ceremony date back no further than the 13th and 14th centuries. By contrast in ancient times, it was not unknown for even minors to read from Torah and give their opinions on what they have read. Such children were seen as young prodigies, rather than being possessed of any kind of divinity.
Normally, Talmidaism is mistrustful and apprehensive about things that have come from the Oral Law. However, for psychological and spiritual reasons, it is important to have some rite of passage which marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.
In modern Jewish life, especially that of secular Jews, Bar Mitsvah parties have become burdensomely expensive affairs, and have lost the original spiritual intent of the custom. In keeping with the ethos of Talmidaism, therefore any ceremony should remain a moderate affair.
In addition, Talmudic rabbinical Judaism views children below the age of 13 as not being responsible for their faults or sins, and therefore their parents are liable and punishable for their sins (reflected in the older term for Bar Mitsvah – Bar `Onshin, another Aramaic term which means ‘subject to punishment’). This is against the mindset of the Israelite religion, whereby the individual is always held responsible for their own actions. The issue is not that the parent is held responsible (parents after all do share some responsibility for the bad behaviour of their children), but rather that the child has no responsibility or culpability whatsoever.
The oldest traditions
The oldest traditions surrounding coming of age are recorded in the Talmud with respect to the customs in Jerusalem in late antiquity:
"In Jerusalem they are accustomed to initiate their children to fast on the Atonement Day, a year or so before their maturity; and then, when the age has arrived, to bring the Bar Mitsvah before the priest or scribe for blessing, encouragement, and prayer, that he may be granted a portion in the Torah and in the doing of good works. Whosoever is of elevated status in the town is expected to pray for him as he bows down to him to receive his blessing."
(Masseket Soferim xviii. 5)
" …. as soon as he becomes of age [his father] brings him into the school and synagogue ('bet ha-midrash' and 'bet ha-k’nesset'), in order that henceforth he may praise the name of God, reciting the 'Barekhu' (Benediction) preceding the reading from the Torah."
From the above, it can be seen that the Bar Mitsvah publicly pronounced a benediction on the occasion of his entrance into maturity.
Physical and psychological changes for boys begin to take place around the ages of 13 and 14. This age was deemed to be the age of responsibility for boys in the ancient Israelite community. Psychologically, this is the age when the father and other male relatives take more responsibility for mentoring him.
It is suggested that a year or so before their 13th birthday, boys of similar age could come together, or even spend a few days in retreat, so that they can ask questions, be taught the responsibilities of adulthood, and understand the transition they are undergoing. Then, throughout the coming year, the same group can periodically meet to further their studies in Torah and in the Israelite way of life.
The transition between childhood and adulthood is obviously more marked in girls. There are commandments in Torah which are specifically for women once they have had their first period and thereafter. It is logical to say that a girl becomes ‘subject to the commandments’ (Bat Mitsvah) once she has had her first period. While she is undergoing her first period, she does no housework, and once her period is over, on the 8th day, she immerses in a miqveh (ritual bath). This is called taharah, meaning ‘ritual purification’.
Again, it is suggested that a year or so before girls are due to have their first period, girls of similar age could come together, or spend a few days in retreat, so that they can be taught what is shortly to happen to their bodies, their changes, and also the responsibilities of adulthood. They can ask questions and have intelligent answers given. Again, throughout the coming year, the same group can periodically meet to further their studies in Torah and in the Israelite way of life.
Once the taharah is performed, the young woman can read from Torah. The reading from Torah does not mark her being Bat Mitsvah (ie ‘subject to the commandments’), since the mere fact that she was having a period made her such. While a woman is having a period, according to Torah, she is ‘ritually unfit’ to perform any religious duties.
Change of terminology
Since a woman is technically Bat Mitsvah (subject to the commandments) as soon as she is having her first period, and since she cannot perform any religious duties while she is having her period (eg read from Torah), it is a misnomer to call the coming of age ceremony ‘bat mitsvah’.
Some Reform and Liberal Jewish communities have realised some of the drawbacks of Bar / Bat Mitsvah, and have instead instituted something called ‘Confirmation’. However, this is too Christian in its terminology.
It would be better to call it ‘bat achrayyut’ (a Hebrew term meaning ‘subject to religious responsibility’). Similarly a boy would be ben achrayyut. This obviously needs some debate within the Talmidi community before we take on anything.
A suggestion for Talmidi custom
Modern bar / bat Mitsvah parties have become a financial burden on parents, and have often lost their religious significance. On occasion they have become opportunities for riotous behaviour and excessive drinking. I suggest that we limit what is done to maintain the dignity and spiritual aspect of the occasion.
I suggest for a boy, a ben achrayyut ceremony to take place at the first Sabbath after his 13th birthday; and for a girl, a bat achrayyut ceremony to take place the first Sabbath after she has completed her taharah in a miqveh.
A year before this is due to happen, boys and girls could spend a few days in separate classes or retreats, as described above. They can spend the coming year preparing to live the life of an adult Israelite, learning about the festivals, fasting on the Day of the Atonements etc.
When the new adult reaches the age of responsibility, to limit the costly burden and potential ostentatiousness, I suggest that we limit any celebratory meal to immediate relatives, and this to take place before the Sabbath ceremony – on a boy’s 13th birthday itself, or on the 8th day after a girl’s taharah – again, debate is needed on this.
Then on the first Sabbath after, the child is blessed in the synagogue by the serving priest, ministering nazirite or ordained scribe, with a community leader present. He/she bows first, and can then be given ‘blessing, encouragement, and prayer, that he/she may be granted a portion in the Torah and in the doing of good works.’
Then the new adult can say the blessing before the reading of the Torah. It seems that in ancient times, the duty of the new adult was concentrated on reading the blessing before the reading of the Torah, rather than on the reading of the Torah itself; again, this needs some debate and agreement.
It is beyond debate that some kind of coming of age ceremony has its place within the Israelite community. On the other hand it is also beyond argument that the current ceremony originates within late rabbinical Judaism and the Oral Law. Also, that modern secular Judaism abuses the custom.
We need something that has a practical basis to it, is helpful in spiritual and psychological terms, is modest in its application, and is thoroughly grounded in Israelite culture. Coming of age in ancient times was not accompanied by expensive or riotous banquets; I suggest we pay heed to this fact.