Bar and Bat Mitzvah

Bar and Bat Mitzvah

In Judaism, Bar Mitzvah (Hebrew: בר מצוה, "one (m.) to whom the commandments apply"), Bat Mitzvah (בת מצוה, "one (f.) to whom the commandments apply;" Ashkenazi: Bas Mitzvah), and B'nei Mitzvah (pl.), are the terms to describe the coming of age of a Jewish boy or girl. According to Jewish law, when Jewish children reach the age of majority (generally thirteen years for boys and twelve for girls) they become responsible for their actions, and "become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah." In many Conservative and Reform synagogues, girls celebrate their Bat Mitzvahs at age 13, along with boys. This also coincides with physical puberty. Prior to this, the child's parents are responsible for the child's adherence to Jewish law and tradition, and after this age, children bear their own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition, and ethics and are privileged to participate in all areas of Jewish community life.

It is a common misconception that the Bar Mitzvah ceremony causes a change in status from youth to adulthood. In fact, the rights and responsibilties vest solely because of age, and the Bar Mitzvah ceremony is typically an ordinary Sabbath service in which the boy or girl participates for the first time as an adult. Although the term "Bar Mitzvah" is commonly, even among Jews, used to refer to the ceremony, it actually refers to the boy or girl who has come of age. In modern Jewish observance, the occasion of becoming a Bar Mitzvah or (in non-Orthodox congregations) a Bat Mitzvah is usually associated with the young man or woman being called to read the Torah and/or Haftarah portion at a Shabbat or other service, and may also involve them giving a d'var Torah including a discussion of that week's Torah portion. Precisely what the Bar/Bat Mitzvah may do during the service varies in Judaism's different denominations, and can also depend on the specific practices of various congregations. Regardless of the nature of the celebration, males become entirely culpable and responsible for following Jewish law once they reach the age of 13, and females once they reach the age of 12.

The majority of Orthodox Jews reject the idea that a woman can publicly read from the Torah or lead prayer services while there is a minyan (quorum of 10 males) available to do so. However, the public celebration of a girl becoming Bat Mitzvah in other ways has made strong inroads in Modern Orthodox Judaism and in some elements of Haredi Judaism. In these congregations women do not read from the Torah or lead prayer services but occasionally they will lecture on a Jewish topic to mark their coming of age, learn a book of Tanakh, recite the verses from other texts (such as the Book of Esther or the Book of Psalms) or prayers from the siddur.

In the Sephardic tradition, a boy may enter adulthood somewhat later, waiting until after his 14th birthday.


The modern method of celebrating one's becoming a Bar Mitzvah did not exist in the time of the Bible, Mishnah or Talmud. In passages in the books of Exodus and Numbers, the age of majority for army service is noted to be twenty. The term "Bar Mitzvah" appears first in the Talmud, the codification of the Jewish oral Torah compiled in the early 1st millennium of the common era, to connote "an [agent] who is subject to scriptural commands, and the age of thirteen is also mentioned in the Mishnah as the time one is obligated to observe the Torah's commandments: "At five years old a person should study the Scriptures, at ten years for the Mishnah, at thirteen for the commandments... The Talmud gives thirteen as the age at which a boy's vows are legally binding, and states that this is a result of his being a "man," as required in . The term "Bar Mitzvah", in the sense it is now used, can not be clearly traced earlier than the fourteenth century, the older rabbinical term being "gadol" (adult) or "bar 'onshin" (son of punishment); that is, liable to punishment for his own misdoings. Many sources indicate that the ceremonial observation of a Bar Mitzvah developed in the Middle Ages, however, there are extensive earlier references to thirteen as the age of majority with respect to following the commandments of the Torah, as well as Talmudic references to observing this rite of passage with a religious ceremony, including:

  • Samuel ha'Katan, at the close of the first century, gives in his saying on the Ages of Man in the Baraita attached to Abot v. 21 (see Machzor Vitry) the completion of the thirteenth year as the age for the commandments ("l'mitzvot"); and the commentary to the passage refers to Levi, the son of Jacob, who, at thirteen, is called "ish" (man; Gen. xxxiv. 25).
  • Simon Tzemach Duran, in his "Magen Abot" to the Baraita, quotes a Midrash interpreting the Hebrew word ("this") in Isa. xliii. 21—"This people have I formed for myself, they shall pronounce A. V. "set forth"] my praise"—as referring by its numerical value to those that have reached the age of thirteen. This seems to imply that at the time the Midrash was composed the Bar Mitzvah publicly pronounced a benediction on the occasion of his entrance upon maturity.
  • the Midrash Hashkem (see Grünhut's "Sefer ha'Likkutim," i. 3a): "The heathen when he begets a son consecrates him to idolatrous practises; the Israelite has his son circumcised and the rite of 'pidyon ha-ben' performed; and as soon as he becomes of age he brings him into the synagogue and school ('beit ha'knesset' and 'beit ha'midrash'),in order that he may praise the name of God, reciting the 'Brachu' (Benediction) preceding the reading from the Law."
  • Masseket Soferim xviii. 5 is even more explicit: "In Jerusalem they are accustomed to initiate their children to fast on the Day of Atonement, a year or two before their maturity; and then, when the age has arrived, to bring the Bar Mitzvah before the priest or elder for blessing, encouragement, and prayer, that he may be granted a portion in the Law and in the doing of good works. Whosoever is of superiority in the town is expected to pray for him as he bows down to him to receive his blessing."
  • the Midrash (Gen. R. lxiii.), which, in commenting upon the passage (Gen. xxv. 27), "and the boys grew," says: "Up to thirteen years Esau and Jacob went together to the primary school and back home; after the thirteen years were over, the one went to the beit ha'midrash for the study of the Law, the other to the house of idols. With reference to this, Rabbi Eleazar remarks, 'Until the thirteenth year it is the father's duty to train his boy; after this he must say: "Blessed be He who has taken from me the responsibility [the punishment] for this boy!"" "Why is the evil desire (yetzer hara) personified as the great king? (Eccl. ix. 14). Because it is thirteen years older than the good desire ('yetzer hatob')." That is to say, the latter comes only with the initiation into duty (Ab. R. N., A. xvi., B. xxx.; Midr. Teh. ix. 2; Eccl. R. ix. 15).
  • According to Pirke R. El. xxvi., Abraham rejected the idolatry of his father and became a worshiper of God when he was thirteen years old.
  • "It is a mitzvah for a person to make a meal on the day his son becomes Bar Mitzvah as on the day he enters the wedding canopy." (Orach Chayim 225:2, Magen Avraham 4)


Once a person is Bar or Bat Mitzvah, they have the responsibilities of an adult Jew under Jewish law. These things include:

  • They are morally responsible for their own actions.
  • They are eligible to be called to read from the Torah, and to participate in a Minyan (In Orthodox denominations, only males read from the Torah or participate in a Minyan).
  • They can own what they possess as personal property.
  • They are old enough to be legally married according to Jewish law.
  • They must follow the 613 laws of the Torah.

Modern practices

Jewish boys


Calling someone to say the Torah blessings during a service is called an Aliyah from the Hebrew: עֲלִיָּה, from the verb alàh, עָלָה, meaning, "to rise, to ascend; to go up"). The widespread practice is that on Shabbat on or after his 13th birthday, a boy may recite the blessings for the Torah reading, and may also read the week's portion from the Torah (five books of Moses) and Haftara (selections from the books of the Prophets), and/or give a d'var Torah, which may include a discussion of that week's Torah portion. He may also lead part or all of the morning prayer services. Precisely what the Bar Mitzvah should lead during the service varies from one congregation to another, and is not fixed by Jewish law. Sometimes the celebration is during another service that includes reading from the Torah, such as a Monday or Thursday morning service, a Shabbat afternoon service, or a morning service on Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon.

The Sephardic Jews tend to bring the boy into adulthood a little later than Ashkenazi Jews, waiting until after his 14th birthday.

Celebratory meal

The service is often followed by a celebratory meal with family, friends, and members of the community. In some modern communities (most notably among affluent North American Jews) this celebratory meal can eclipse the religious ceremony itself, often rivaling a wedding celebration in extravagance.

The celebration is sometimes delayed for reasons such as availability of a Shabbat during which no other celebration has been scheduled, or the desire to permit family to travel to the event; however, this does not delay the onset of rights and responsibilities of being a Jewish adult, which comes about strictly by virtue of age. Not having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration does not make the child becoming an adult any less of a Jew. Jews become entirely culpable and responsible for following Jewish law once they reach the age of 13.

After the celebratory bar mitzva meal it is customary for the celebrant to lead the Birkat Hamazon, something he could not do as a minor.


The current practice is that boys do not start wearing tefilin until they are close to bar mitzvah. The most widespread custom appears to be for starting to wear tefilin about 30 days before the thirteenth birthday, although others commence about three months in advance, and there is also a custom (prevalent among chasidim) for tefilin to be worn for the first time on the thirteenth birthday. For this reason there is a strong perceived correlation between the bar mitzva ceremony and the commandment of tefilin.

Jewish girls

Except among Italian Jews, no ceremony parallel to a boy's Bar Mitzvah ceremony developed for girls before the modern age: "There were occasional attempts to recognize a girl's coming of age in eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the former in Warsaw (1843) and the latter in Lemberg (1902). The occasion was marked by a party without any ritual in the synagogue.

The Orthodox Jewish Italian rite for becoming Bat Mitzvah, which involved an "entrance into the minyan" ceremony in which boys of thirteen and girls of twelve recited a blessing, has been documented since the mid-nineteenth century and may have influenced the American Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, who held the first public celebration of a Bat Mitzvah in America, for his daughter Judith, on March 18, 1922 at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York City.

Kaplan, an Orthodox rabbi who joined Conservative Judaism and then became the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, influenced Jews from all branches of non-Orthodox Judaism, through his position at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. At the time, most Orthodox rabbis strongly rejected its usage.

As the ceremony became accepted for females as well as males, many women chose to celebrate the ceremony even though they were much older, as a way of formalizing and celebrating their place in the adult Jewish community.

Today, most non-Orthodox Jews celebrate a girl's Bat Mitzvah in the same way as a boy's Bar Mitzvah. All Reform and Reconstructionist, and most Conservative synagogues have egalitarian participation in which women read from the Torah and lead services. The majority of Orthodox Judaism rejects the idea that a woman can publicly read from the Torah or lead prayer services while a minyan (quorum of 10 adult males) is available to do so. This was done because a woman reading the Torah or leading the prayer services implied that the men were illiterate and couldn't (Massechet Megilah).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in a prominent Orthodox posek, has opposed anyone attending a Bat Mitzvah and has referred to the ceremony as hevel, nonsense. The Sephardic rabbi René Samuel Sirat, who served as Chief Rabbi of France, has also opposed Bat Mitzvah. However, the public celebration of a girl becoming Bat Mitzvah has made strong inroad in Modern Orthodox Judaism. In these congregations women do not read from the Torah or lead prayer services but occasionally they will lecture on a Jewish topic to mark their coming of age, learn a book of Tanakh, or recite the verses from other texts (such as the Book of Esther or the Book of Psalms) or prayers from the siddur.

Second Bar Mitzvah

Among some Jews, it is customary for a man who has reached the age of 83 to celebrate a second bar mitzvah, under the logic that a "normal" lifespan is 70 years, so that an 83-year-old can be considered 13 in a second lifetime. This practice is now becoming increasingly common among other denominations as well.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah gifts

As with weddings, it is common to give the Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrant a gift to commemorate the occasion. Traditionally, common gifts included books with religious or educational value, religious items, writing implements, savings bonds (to be used for the child's college education) or gift certificates Gifts of cash are commonplace in recent times. As with charity and all other gifts it has become common to give in multiples of 18: the gematria, or numerical equivalence of the Hebrew word for "life", ("chai") is the number 18. Monetary gifts in multiples of 18 are considered to be particularly auspicious and have become very common for Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. Many Bar/Bat Mitzvah also receive their first tallit from their parents to be used for the occasion.

Humanist Judaism's procedures

Instead of reading from the Torah, some Humanist Jews prefer to research, write, and present a research paper on a topic in Jewish history to mark their coming of age.


This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.

Further reading

Oppenheimer, Mark. Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah across America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005.

External links

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