Bar Mitzvahs Revealed

One of the more recognizable traditions of the Jewish culture is what most people call the ‘Bar Mitzvah.’ This phrase can be translated from Hebrew and Aramaic, which are both ancient, Middle Eastern languages, to mean ‘son of the commandment.’ Thus, the bar mitzvah is a ceremony that Jewish boys do. The ceremony for girls is called a Bat Mitzvah.

What is a Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

While it is common today to refer to the ceremony as a bar or bat mitzvah, this is actually not correct. The phrase bar/bat mitzvah actually refers to a child who is coming of age and so the term really refers to the person, rather than the ceremony. This being the case, when someone says that a Jewish youth is ‘having a bar mitzvah,’ or that they are ‘going to their friend’s bat mitzvah,’ they are actually making a mistake. It would be more correct to say that they are going to the bat mitzvah celebration.

Moreover, in the Jewish culture, when a person comes of age so that they can become a bar or bat mitzvah, this does not mean that they are entering adulthood. When a child becomes a bar or bat mitzvah, they are literally becoming a son or daughter of the commandment. This is because Jewish law does not require children to obey the commandments. Of course, children are taught and encouraged to do so, but they do not get punished severely for infractions.

When a Jewish boy turns thirteen, for girls it is at the age of twelve, the requirement to obey the commandments begins. The bar mitzvah ceremony is the occasion that formalizes the beginning of that requirement. However, not only do Jewish youth assume the obligation to obey commandments, but they also gain the right to take part in certain Jewish religious ceremonies. Other changes in their lives include that, under Jewish law, they are now old enough to testify in religious courts, as well as to form binding contracts and to get married.

While these rights are conferred upon Jewish youth at the age of thirteen and twelve, it is also important to note that the Jewish culture also recognizes and obeys the laws of the land. Thus, while a youth might be allowed under Jewish law to get married at age thirteen, they probably will not be married until after they are eighteen, depending on the laws of the country they live in.

Bar mitzvah ceremonies are usually joyful occasions that include some rituals, but the truth is that they are not necessary. In fact, boys and girls automatically become bar and bat mitzvahs when they turn thirteen and twelve. Another common misconception is that a person is not actually considered Jewish until they have celebrated a bar mitzvah. The reality is that the bar mitzvah has only come about relatively recently. This ceremony is not mentioned in the Talmud, the Jewish book of teachings. Moreover, the complicated rituals and ceremonies that are part of today’s bar mitzvahs really only began in the twentieth century.

What Happens at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

When bar mitzvahs began, the youth celebrating would customarily be asked to take a very small part in the Jewish Shabbat, or Sabbath day, services. This would happen soon after the youth turned either twelve or thirteen. During the services, the youth would go to the front and recite a prayer over the reading from the Torah, which the Jewish believe is a book containing the revealed word of God.

On the other hand, today the youth celebrating a bar mitzvah takes a far more active role in the ceremonies and rituals. Now, the youth is usually expected to learn the entire conclusion to the Sabbath day reading of the Torah, including a traditional chant. Thus, at the end of the ceremony, they show their mastery of the material by reciting the chant and conclusion.

Some other traditions call for the youth to do the entire Sabbath day reading. Still others ask the youth to lead the service, or to guide the attendees in specific ritualistic prayers. However, probably the most common tradition is for the youth to give a speech at the end of the ceremony. This speech traditionally begins with the phrase, “Today I am a man (woman).” To conclude the ceremony portion of the bar or bat mitzvah, the father takes the opportunity to recite a blessing that shows gratitude that the child is now responsible for his or her own sins.

Nowadays, the reception that follows the religious service is usually incredibly elaborate, resembling a wedding ceremony. Usually there is a fancy meal, along with party games, and gifts are often given. In particularly wealthy families, attendees can expect to essentially spend the entire day at an exciting party that. Thus, the bar mitzvah celebration can also be an important social event in a young person’s life.

In conclusion, it is important to understand that the bar or bat mitzvah does not signal an end to a Jewish youth’s religious education. Nor is the bar or bat mitzvah supposed to be the only goal for Jewish youth. Instead, the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is meant to only be one goal of many important religious goals for Jewish youth.

About jaredgarrett

Jared Garrett is the author of Beat, a YA scifi thriller, and its forthcoming sequel, both published by Future House Publishing. A new series, debuting in January 2016 and also published by Future House, kicks off with Lakhoni, a fast-paced rescue adventure in a world reminiscent of Aztec culture, to be released in January 2016. He self-published Beyond the Cabin, a novelization of his childhood in a cult, in December 2014. Both Beat and Beyond the Cabin were Whitney Award nominees, and his story Song of the Wind, received honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. In addition to writing, he's spent fifteen years in adult education and is an accomplished public speaker and workshop leader.
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