Bar Mitzvah History:
Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies have been celebrated in some form for thousands of years. Bar Mitzvah in biblical and Talmudic times simply meant "coming of age". The meaning has since become the literal "(son) of the commandments". Originally, a Jewish man was considered to be an adult at the age of 20, when he was eligible to be taxed and join in the military. However, during Talmudic times (around 2000 B.C.E.), the age was decreased to 13 years old. The ceremony was simply a blessing at first and included the child's first aliyah; it did not include any celebrations. The Bar Mitzvah was largely symbolic in the religious sense however, as minors were allowed to participate if they were deemed mentally fit and chose to do so. During the late middle ages this practice became more literal, as minors were no longer allowed to be "called to the Torah" until reaching Bar Mitzvah age.
It wasn't until approximately 200 years ago that Jewish families started celebrating a Bat Mitzvah for girls that reach the age of 12 or 13. The practice was thought to have started in Europe. However, the Bat Mitzvah ceremony is attributed to the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Mordecai Kaplan.
Traditional responsibilities for becoming a Bar Mitzvah include:
- Moral responsibility and accountability for ones own actions
- Able to be called to read from the Torah
- May possess personal property
- May be married
- Must follow 613 laws of the Torah
In modern times, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony has become largely based on the interpretations, customs, and beliefs of the synagogue or temple that the family attends. Jewish populations around the world also celebrate this special occasion slightly to very differently. The Sephardim and the Ashkenazim customs differ greatly. In America, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies are usually accompanied by large parties and fancy gifts.
Common practices include:
- Learning prayers/theology, customs, holidays, history, and recently, the language (Originally taught by the father, it has now become a practice to learn in Religious or Hebrew School)
- Reading of the Torah (entire, maftir, haftarah, or combination)
- Some form of commentary (commonly on the meaning of becoming a Bar Mitzvah or recent Torah readings
- A feast or celebration
Bar Mitzvah Ceremony in the Modern Age:
In modern America, Bar Mitzvahs have become elaborate celebrations, similar to a wedding. Some reform movements tried to do away with Bar Mitzvah celebrations, stating that a child does not become an adult at the age of 13. This practice was to be replaced with a confirmation at the age of 16 or 18. Due to the popularity of Bar Mitzvah ceremonies, the practice has since been revived. Gifts, games, food, themes, speeches, favors, decorations, Hora, cakes: these are all elements commonly found at a modern Bar Mitzvah party. It has become common practice to give gifts, usually money, in multiples of 18. This is due to the fact that the number 18 is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for "life". Many Bar and Bat Mitzvah also receive their first tallit from their parents to be used for the occasion.
Coming of Age:
Although the Bar Mitzvah in its common form is a relatively new ceremony, the concept of coming of age ceremonies predates the Torah. Peoples and cultures all over the world have some sort of coming of age ceremony. Christians receive confirmation, Hindus undergo Upanayana, and even Shintoism and Confucianism have distinct coming of age ceremonies. In fact the rites of passage for a young man/woman can be traced back to prehistoric times.
Second Bar Mitzvah:
Among some Jewish communities, a man who has reached age 83 will celebrate a second Bar Mitzvah. This is due to the fact that a normal lifespan is considered 70 years. Reaching 83 would signify a "second 13".
Due to the numerous different practices involving Bar Mitzvah ceremonies it is hard to pinpoint an exact definition. These are simply the most common or well-known instances of rituals, history, and customs involved in a Bar Mitzvah ceremony.