The bar and bat mitzvah have become quite the celebration in modern Judaism, but what were they like hundreds of years ago? It’s second nature nowadays to associate a bar or bat mitzvah with huge themed parties, catered food, and party favors for tweens. But how did it all begin? Here is the skinny on the origin of today’s bar and bat mitzvah.
Historically, the bar mitzvah (literally translated to “son of the commandment”) represented the coming of age of a young man who was no longer considered a minor under Jewish law. This meant he could now accept all religious responsibilities and privileges.
The bar mitzvah developed as public recognition of both legal and religious status independent of any kind of ritual; in other words, when a boy turned 13 years old, he was automatically bestowed all legal and religious obligations of an adult, much like a minor turning 18 years old in the United States (sans the religious imperatives).
The beginnings of today’s modern bar/bat mitzvah appeared as early as the 6th century C.E., but not until the Middle Ages did a fully developed ritual emerge. At this time, the custom of calling a boy up to the Torah was established, and he would chant some blessings, recite some or all of that week’s Haftorah portion, and his father would offer the special blessing, “Blessed is He who has freed me from responsibility for this boy.” The boy would often then give a scholarly speech about the Torah or haftorah portion, and the congregation would then enjoy a feast, which was (and still is) also considered a mitzvah in which to partake. Thus, by the Middle Ages, almost all of the elements of the modern bar mitzvah were established (except perhaps the themed parties! ; ).
Starting in the 2nd or 3rd century C.E. girls were given legal & religious adult status at the age of 12 years old, but with much fewer religious rights, commandments or ceremonial acknowledgement. The first-known bat mitzvah in North America was not until 1921 by Judith Kaplan, daughter of Mordecai Kaplan. Reform and conservative congregations quickly adopted the official bat mitzvah into their religious ritual protocol.
Today, bar and bat mitzvahs typically lead to a massive celebration with family, friends, and sometimes the whole congregation. Whatever form your mitzvah takes, just know that it has deep roots and a meaningful history in the Jewish religion. You can be proud to become a bar or bat mitzvah with a long line of tradition informing your own rite of passage.
photo credit: photo 1 – messianicfellowship :: photo 2 – freephoto.com :: photo 3 – wikipedia.org :: photo 4 – specialevents.com :: photo 5 - southerncaliforniamitzvahs.com :: photo 6 - southerncaliforniamitzvahs.com