Bar Mitzvah - Bat Mitzvah

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Bar Mitzvah - Bat Mitzvah 


There is one religious action which is widely observed in the Jewish community, although it has become utterly secularized in the hands of many American Jews. That is the observance of Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah.  This is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. That phrase was invented by the Dutch-French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep who sought to show that in all societies these ceremonies seek to mark the transition from one status to another.

 Since 85% of  born Jews who consider themselves Jewish by religion become Bar Mitzvah and since the same is true even of that 36% who say they have no religion, it is evident that the Bar Mitzvah rite plays a major role in maintaining the Jewish  identity of most  American Jewish adults. Bar Mitzvah has been called "the most clear cut rite of passage" by Jack E. Bynum and William E. Thompson, who argue in their book Juvenile Delinquency that  delinquency is much lower among Jews than other Americans because of  the "assumption of adult religious responsibilities and duties" by Jewish adolescents. Bynum and Thompson then suggest that all Americans "symbolize the rite of passage from childhood to  adulthood  ....".

It is of course true that Bar Mitzvah, and to a lesser and more recent extent Bat Mitzvah, has had a salutary effect upon Jewish adolescents and provided them with all those benefits which rites of passage have always provided all mankind. Nevertheless, it can be easily demonstrated that the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony has frequently become so secularized that it has lost its religious content almost entirely.

The origin of the Bar Mitzvah may be found in the "Mishnah". The Hebrew word "Mishnah" is derived from "shanah", to repeat. The "Mishnah" constitutes the first part of the Talmud, which is a collection of scriptural interpretations first written in the 3rd century of the Common Era. In the 6th Division of that book, called "Tohoroth", in the subdivision called "Niddah", or vows, verse 6 deals with the validity of vows by children and holds that the vows of a boy age thirteen are valid and that the same holds true for girls at age twelve. This interpretation then led to the custom of instituting the Bar Mitzvah  ceremony  and designating the thirteen year old an adult. Usually these Hebrew/ Aramaic words are translated as "Son of the Commandment". This designation first came into use in the late Middle Ages. Prior to that time other labels were attached to a thirteen year old, such as "Godol", meaning big or adult or "Bar Onshin", meaning responsible.

The great twelfth century Jewish scholar Maimonides commented upon this Mishnah in his explanation of the roles played by men at various ages. Said Maimonides:  "At five years of age one is ready for the Bible; at ten years for the Mishnah, at thirteen years for the precepts etc."

Bar Mitzvah was not known to the ancient Jews. This was true because minor children were permitted to participate in all religious ceremonies, including  the reading of the Bible or Torah, and used the "Tfillin."  "Tfillin" are two boxes containing Scripture. These two boxes are attached to the forehead of  a male congregant by a leather strap placed upon the skull and by another leather strap placed on the left forearm. The Greek word "phylactery" is sometimes used to designate these boxes, the word meaning  "guards" in the sense that the words contained in the boxes are expected to guard the wearer from evil thoughts during prayer.

The two religious rights, witnessing the reading of Torah and using the "Tfillin", were restricted in the fourteenth and fifteenth century until participation in these religious observances became strictly a sign of adult status. That in turn made the "Bar Mitzvah" ceremony significant because a major status change was thereby initiated. It is my view that this change became possible because life expectancy increased after the fifteenth century in Europe. Prior to that time death came so often to young children  and life expectancy was so short that the community could not risk postponement of these duties to a later age.  The history of childhood plainly shows that  children were not much valued when there were many  who died easily and seldom reached maturity. It was only in the 15th and 16th century  when people began to take increasing pleasure in them. New moral standards for the young began to appear in the 16th and 17th centuries as did a new emphasis upon parental responsibility for the welfare of children.

Once the Bar Mitzvah ceremony had become generally accepted, the celebration of Bar Mitzvah was increasingly augmented both in the synagogue and in the home. In Germany and in Poland the Bar Mitzvah boy read portions of the Prophets as well as portions from the Bible or Torah. He also delivered a  sermon and in some cases showed such scholarship and erudition that he was viewed a great scholar and "rebbe" even at a very young age.  These customs continued in Europe until the 1940's, when the Nazi killers wiped out the entire Jewish community there and America and Israel became the focus of Jewish life instead.      

The Conservative movement was launched in this country. Together with its older branches, Reform and Orthodox Judaism, the Conservative movement became secularized and the Bar Mitzvah celebrations showed it. Today, some Bar Mitzvahs have become so ostentatious and so expensive that all sight is lost of the original intent of Bar Mitzvah and the religious and spiritual  values  previously associated with it have been voided.

It has become customary among some Jews to impose a sports theme upon Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. Thus, a child may chose football or hockey as his theme. That done, table decorations at various elaborate meals during the Bar Mitzvah weekend carry football emblems. Sometimes, professional football players or hockey players or baseball players, who are seldom Jewish themselves, are invited to the Bar Mitzvah party to lend an authentic sports quality to the respective celebrations. Pictures of prominent athletes are often displayed at such Bat and Bar Mitzvahs. Occasionally fights develop in the hotels where Bar Mitzvahs are celebrated. I am acquainted with a Bar Mitzvah party at which $3,000 worth of damage was done to a hotel in which the party took place as guests fought among each other, threw food into the wall and became totally drunk.

Often, the Bar Mitzvah boy and his family congratulate each other on the fact that at party time the actual Bar Mitzvah ceremony is over and the recently admitted "adult" can now forget the minimum of  Hebrew and Jewish civilization he was forced to learn. It is rare that a Bat/Bar Mitzvah continues his Jewish education after the event, so that the only memory a twelve or thirteen year old will have of the ceremony will be the party after the synagogue activities have been concluded.

While Bat and Bar Mitzvahs are generally held on Saturday because the Torah is read that day, a few conduct the ceremony on a Monday or Thursday because the Torah is also read on those two days each week.  This is not generally known but is derived from the ancient custom of the Israeli population to travel to Jerusalem on market days, which were Monday and Thursday, and then read the Torah so that farmers from outlying areas could hear the reading. There are now a number of American legal holidays on Mondays and a few, such as Thanksgiving, on Thursday. Therefore, some Jews have Bat or Bar Mitzvahs on those days.  This then indicates that the Bar Mitzvah ceremony has become so strongly influenced by secular American society that the distance between  the sacred and the profane has diminished to a minimum.

This reduction in the distance between secular and religious concerns is visible not only in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony but also in the activities of religious congregations.  While erstwhile religious activities consisted of prayer, study of sacred texts, participation in ceremonies and home observance of religious rites,  the secularization process has translated these actions into fund raising and "good" works.  Among the secularized Jews and others in late 20th century America, participation in political activities, money collection and active intervention in a variety of civic causes is very common. Thus, "good works" take the place of dogma, "liberal" politics becomes a substitute for ritual and financial contributions replace the promotion of scholarship.

Shalom uívracha.


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