The phrases “bar mitzvah” and “bat mitzvah” mean “person who has reached the age of commandedness”, meaning that one can be held accountable for one’s actions. They do not in any way refer to, or require, rituals, let alone parties. In that sense, there is no such thing as “having a bar mitzvah”; rather, one “became bar mitzvah” when they reached the age of 12 (women) or 13 (men).
However, Jewish tradition is aware that it is impossible to be held accountable for obligations of which one is unaware, and even more strongly, that one cannot be held fully accountable for obligations which are not seen as “live options” in the culture one identifies with.
Therefore, it makes sense for Jews to ritually celebrate the moment at which they acquire the knowledge or sensibility to assume the full panoply of Jewish obligations, at whatever age that occurs, and to use the terms “bar mitzvah” and “bat mitzvah” to describe those celebrations.
However, one must always be clear that a Jew is obligated to fulfill his or her Jewish responsibilities from the age of majority, whether or not they were called up to the Torah as part of a ritual coming-of-age ceremony.
Furthermore, while the study of Torah is certainly an appropriate part of such marking, my wife Mrs. Deborah Klapper argues compellingly for the inclusion of interpersonal mitzvoth that require Jewish legal adulthood as well. For example, under Jewish law children cannot give their own property away, even to charity. Therefore, accepting a charitable donation from someone is a recognition of their adulthood.
The phenomenon of "adult bar mitzvah" celebrations does many wonderful things, so long as it is made clear that the Jew was obligated at the age of adulthood, party or no. I hope they fulfill their potential to serve as models of meaningful ritual that generate a commenal reevaluation of the way bar and bat mitzvahs are currently celebrated at the standard age.
The greatest guarded secret from all Jewish children is the fact that one becomes a bar /bat mitzvah simply by turning thirteen years and a day (some communities hold that for girls it is twelve years and a day). Yes, that’s right- no aliyah, no Torah/ Haftarah reading, no study or delivering a d’var torah- none of these things is necessary to become a bar mitzvah. The reason for this is that becoming a bar mitzvah means that one becomes an adult, which according to Jewish law, means that one is responsible to fulfill the commandments (mitzvoth).
What we moderns call the bar/bat mitzvah is really the ritual that has developed in order to mark this milestone in a child’s life. If a person does not have such a ritual when s/he turns thirteen, it is appropriate to create an opportunity for such a ritual to mark his or her decision to affirm the covenant. To be certain, such a person became a bar /bat mitzvah at thirteen years old, but deciding to take a moment to mark the decision to take one’s commitment to Judaism more seriously is a wonderful idea. Many synagogues call this an “adult bar /bat mitzvah.” In addition to a beautiful milestone for a person, such a ritual can be deeply important to the larger synagogue community. When an adult chooses to recommit to their Jewish lives, they serve as a model for the larger community. They inspire others to do the same.
A related question was posed earlier. It was: “My grandfather celebrated a second bar mitzvah. Can you explain the reason behind his doing so and if this is a ceremony expected of all Jews of a certain age?”, and the answers given can be found at:
From that question, you can see that it is possible to celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah after the normal age.
Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah, for a woman) is a phrase that indicates a change in status. The phrase Bar Mitzvah literally means ‘son of the commandments’ (Bat Mitzvah means ‘daughter of the commandments’), and implies that a person who has achieved that status is responsible for their religious behavior and choices, and is obligated to follow the commandments or laws set forth for Jews in the Torah. It is not an event or a ritual. The ritual and celebration that most people mistakenly refer to as the “Bar Mitzvah” event is unnecessary for the change in status to occur.
It simply happens; just as an American citizen who simply reaches their 18th birthday is automatically rendered eligible to enter into contracts, and on reaching their 21st birthday is rendered legally allowed to consume alcohol (in most jurisdictions). They need do nothing, there is no ritual, yet the change in status occurs on the passing of the date, whether they mark it or not.
Similarly, technically one becomes a Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah) on their thirteenth birthday (though some hold that as in past, for young women the age is twelve, as young women are understood to mature faster - certainly physically, and often emotionally as well; but this difference in age to mark the change in status is not universally accepted today; most Reform communities use the age of thirteen for both genders).
In Jewish law centuries ago, this change in status would coincide with becoming considered an adult, and eligible to marry and take on responsibilities in the community. Today we generally don’t believe that a thirteen year old is ready to be an adult in most ways, and we certainly don’t expect them to marry at that point, but we do feel that they are ready to become participating, responsible, and contributing members of their religious community.
The ritual, which does not cause, but celebrates this change in status, is a mutual understanding between the person and the community. On the one hand, the person is asking to be accepted by the community, and offering a demonstration that they are prepared for their role by being adequately educated and capable of contributing to the life of that community. The community, on the other hand, is recognizing their status, and welcoming that person as a full member, and offering them the highest possible honor by calling them up for an Aliyah (the honor of being called up to recite the blessings over reading the Torah), and by having them represent the community in worship by leading prayers for the community. An acknowledgement of the celebratory nature of the event is the seudah, or festive communal meal, that follows and celebrates the performance of a mitzvah or commandment, which often takes the form of a party, though it need not – it can be as simple as a glass of wine and a loaf of bread (usually challah – a braided egg bread), over which blessings can be recited.
The ritual is an acknowledgment and celebration of the change in status; it does not cause it, and is not tied to the change in status, so the ritual of celebration can take place at any time following the date of the status change. It is possible for a person who did not have an opportunity to celebrate their change in status to do so at any time. Thus, one can prepare for the ritual and celebrate whenever the opportunity and desire arise.
As a note: before about 75 years ago, there were no Bat Mitzvah celebrations; it was just not done, so that many women did not have the opportunity to celebrate (a trivia note: the first acknowledged Bat Mitzvah celebration was that of Judith Kaplan Eisenstein in the context of a Reconstructionist community). In the last twenty-five or so years, there have been many adult women who have chosen to prepare for and to celebrate their status as B’not (daughters; plural of Bat) Mitzvah.
Similarly, men who for whatever reason did not celebrate their status have had the opportunity to do so at a later date, and persons who were delayed for various reasons (health, ability, learning issues, or other) have celebrated at a time later than their 13th birthday. So, it is quite possible and acceptable to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah) at a time later than the 13th birthday of that person.
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