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Bnai Mitzvah

Definition

Bar Mitzvah is an Aramaic phrase. Literally it means “son of the commandment,” but this is not quite correct, as it is an idiom meaning one who is legally capable of being bound by the commandments. Bat Mitzvah is the feminine equivalent.

Meaning

Venerable cultures have long celebrated significant lifecycle milestones with meaningful rituals. Books such Margaret Meade’s Coming of Age in Samoa present us with a window into how more primitive societies helped youth traverse the difficulties of sexual maturation and the change of societal roles it entailed.

For Jews, the ritual marking of maturation is strikingly different. The transition to adulthood occurs neither through a ceremonial hunt nor a child wedding. Rather, the young adolescent appears before the adult community to demonstrate his or her mastery of ancient texts and to publically declare that he or she is now a morally responsible agent. It is thus the putting away of childish things that indicates adulthood in Jewish culture. The texts they read, of course, are selections from the Bible. These readings are the foundational narratives and laws that form the basis of Jewish culture, identity and timeless morality. To be a Jewish adult is to know what happened in the past, and to have an ethical guide for how to act in the future.

Background

The status of a thirteen year old boy as legally and morally responsible is clear as early as Talmudic times. In ancient times, a capable boy could participate in certain commandments even before he reached the age of majority. By the middle ages, this leniency was removed, and the birth of the bar mitzvah ceremony resulted, in which a boy would be called to read (sections from) the weekly Torah and Haftarah portions.

Girls, who matured earlier, became responsible for those mitzvoth incumbent on women at the age of twelve years and one day. In Orthodox circles, this remains the norm. In the Conservative world where the commandments can be equally binding on a girl, bat mitzvah also occurs at age thirteen.

Today’s Ceremony

Following this medieval innovation, at Beth El both boys and girls are called up to the Torah sometime after their thirteenth birthday, normally on a Shabbat morning. This very visible celebration is preceded by years of study, either at Beth El’s supplementary schools or a Jewish day school. The year leading up to the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony is highlighted by intensive study with our Hazzan, Cantor and Rabbis. After successfully reading the Torah, Haftarah and giving a short davar torah (short sermon), it is not uncommon for the family to mark their child’s accomplishment with a celebratory party.

Planning for Your Bar or Bat Mitzvah Celebration

As indicated, a bar or bat mitzvah entails years of preparation. Please contact our religious school director, Jen Vegh at (914) 235-2700, ext. 247 or jvegh@bethelnr.org for more information and to learn about our yearly Bar/Bat Mitzvah Institute at which parents and children are given an overview of the final year of study.

Beth El’s B’nai Mitzvah Guide 2015

Fri, February 21 2020 26 Shevat 5780