– The Bar Mitzvah –
The bar mitzvah is an incredibly significant event as it is the first public demonstration of a boy’s new role as a full-fledged member of the community. He can now participate in a minyan and is, by Jewish law, no longer under the responsibility of his father. Within the Jewish community in Eastern Europe, a boy was typically called to read from the Torah on either a Monday or Thursday. These were days when the Torah was brought out from the ark and read to the congregation. In Western Europe, a boy’s Torah reading carried a stronger ceremonial importance. It was tradition for the bar mitzvah boy to be called to the Torah to read portions of the maftir, the concluding section of the portion of the Torah chanted or read in a Jewish service on the Sabbath and festivals. In addition to reading the maftir, he also read the haftorah, the portion of the book of Prophets chanted in synagogue on holy days and the Shabbat immediately after a boy’s 13th birthday. The boy is prepared to read from the Torah scrolls as his family is called up for an aliyah during the Torah reading. The reading is followed by the rabbi’s sermon, which usually relates to the boy’s novel responsibilities and privileges within his community.
– Tefillin –
Apart from the bar mitzvah Torah reading ritual, a bar mitzvah boy is required to henceforth put on tefillin for the morning prayer, Shacharit. Usually, the bar mitzvah is taught the form of wrapping the tefillin and the rite before the bar mitzvah ceremony. However, there are Sephardic Jews and some Hasidic Jewry that prefer to interpret the Kabbalah exactly. The Kabbalah explains that tefillin cannot be worn even a single day before a boy becomes a bar mitzvah. Thus, for most Sephardic boys, the first occasion of putting on tefillin takes place during the bar mitzvah celebration itself.
– The Bat Mitzvah –
Before girls had bat mitzvahs, there were alternative ways to celebrate their initiation into the adult Jewish community. Typically, when they were 12 and one day old, girls would celebrate their birthday with a party recognizing their new role and responsibility as Jewish adults.
The celebration or acknowledgment of a girl’s coming of age was observed differently in various Jewish communities throughout the world. By the 19th century, records of ceremonies and public recognition of girls’ bat mitzvahs came from Italy, Egypt, North America and Europe. In most cases, acknowledgements of female adulthood in the Jewish community would include a private blessing, an aliyah by the father to the Torah, a sermon by the rabbi, and/or an exam given to the bat mitzvah by the rabbi on Judaic values–all of which took place in the synagogue. Below are descriptions of the evolution of the bat mitzvah from its earliest recorded dates in the late 19th century, to the modern American and innovative bat mitzvahs that we see being celebrated just like bar mitzvahs.
– Italy –
Italy is where scholars found the earliest evidence of a bat mitzvah taking place. This source, from Verona on Passover of 1844, refers to an iniziazione religiosa delle fanciulle and la maggiorita delle fanciulle. This roughly translates to the entrance “into a minyan” and was used for both boys and girls. This tradition rapidly spread throughout Jewish communities of Italy with girls reciting biblical verses in a liturgical setting right before the rabbi delivered his sermon. Today, in Italy, a rabbi will assess a 12-year-old girl based on her knowledge of Jewish studies; this ceremony usually takes place on either Shavuot or Purim. The assessment is then followed by her recitation of special prayers in Hebrew and Italian in the synagogue. Subsequently, a celebration is held in honor of the bat mitzvah.
– Egypt –
In 1907 in Alexandria, Egypt, Rabbi Elijah Hazzan held a synagogue celebration for benot mitzvah for girls who completed studies in religious studies.
– Germany –
In 1867 Germany, the renowned Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger openly opposed the rituals that were gaining popularity in Europe and viewed them as influences of Christian culture. Instead, similar to some Danish traditions, Rabbi Ettlinger gave some girls a limmudei kodesh, or a public exam on the completion of their studies, followed by a sermon (Binyan Zion 107). This entire process took place in the synagogue.
– France –
In France, Rabbi Musafiya records that bat mitzvah celebrations were held toward the end of the 19th century.
– Israel –
In Israel, religion plays a stronger role in education and societal culture. Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, it became tradition to celebrate a girl’s 12th birthday with a party of some kind. Although the festivities were labeled as a bat mitzvah, there was seldom any liturgical or synagogue aspect to the ceremony. In the 21st century, however, it became more common for all the girls in a class to prepare in a group celebration following their study of relevant material during the school year. Still, some schools and synagogues facilitate a ritual arrangement for girls, and some families may go to a sacred sight such as Rachel’s tomb for their celebrations. Today, both Israelis and tourists who want a solemn and Torah element for a bat or bar mitzvah may go to the Western wall, where they can celebrate in their respective sections, or hold a formal ceremony at a location near the Western Wall. (Jewish Virtual Library)
– North America-
The first North American bat mitzvah was held in 1922 in New York City. That year, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan held one for his daughter, Judith Kaplan. The celebration was not identical to a contemporary bar mitzvah, which would include an aliyah and traditional reading of the haftorah. Instead, Judith Kaplan read a portion, chosen by her father, from one of the five books of the Torah. Traces of an egalitarian bat mitzvah, similar to a bar mitzvah, were not recorded until 1940 and did not spread across North America until after the 1960s.
The early 1960s saw the commencement of girls reading from the Torah scroll and partaking in more liturgical roles throughout their bat mitzvah ceremonies. Yet, their religious roles were not equal to those of a bar mitzvah. It was not until the early 21st century that most benot mitzvah in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements started to perform the same liturgical roles as bar mitzvahs. These roles included the reading of the Torah scroll in the recitation of the haftorah. Today, some congregations hold the ceremony on Friday night; others, such as the synagogue where I had my bat mitzvah, hold services on Shabbat morning.
The evolution of the bat mitzvah has opened doors to Jewish women that want a stronger background in Judaic studies. These women can now have a firmer understanding of their religious values and the impact that those values have on the quality of their personal and family lives.
After months of hard work that young girls and boys (and their parents, for that matter) put into preparing for their bar or bat mitzvahs, the next thing to consider is the party’s venue. Although some might think that the parties that follow formal bar/bat mitzvah services are solely a means for proud and eager parents to celebrate their children’s initiation to Jewish adulthood, they are wrong. According to Rabbi Shlomo Lauria, a noted 16th century Polish scholar, the bar mitzvah feast or party is a seudat mitzvah, a “mitzvah repast.” Participating in the meal is actually a mitzvah in itself (source, Chabad).
In learning about the evolution of the bar mitzvah from a small, symbolic rite of passage, to a ceremony of reading the Torah and wrapping tefillin, I value the modern ritual as a statement of welcoming Jewish youth into the community that they might one day come to lead. Indeed, the gradual and successful progression of the bat mitzvah has enhanced and broadened women’s education of Judaism and Jewish values. In this way, educated Jewish women are acquiring knowledge that they can pass on to future generations. The development of the b’nei mitzvah tradition is a custom I am more than proud to be a part of, as it recognizes and illustrates the significant roles of both girls and boys within their Jewish community.