The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony is an important RITE OF PASSAGE for contemporary Jewish youth, marking the end of childhood and the beginning of ritual adulthood. The term bar mitzvah can be found in Talmudic literature, but the rite itself is a relatively recent development, probably dating from the late Middle Ages. The bat mitzvah was not mentioned until the nineteenth century.
The Talmud, a compendium of legal and narrative discourse completed about 500 C.E., based legal maturity on PUBERTY, which was declared to occur at thirteen and a day for a boy and twelve and a day for a girl. At that point, a male became a "bar mitzvah" (literally, "son of the commandment"), responsible for his own ritual and moral behavior. (The term refers also in common parlance to the rite itself.) Most importantly, the bar mitzvah was a full-fledged adult in matters of communal religious status, though not necessarily in all legal matters. He was counted in the minyan, the quorum of ten males necessary for public prayer, and could be called up for the public reading of the Torah in religious services. The change in a girl's status was less noticeable. Although the bat mitzvah too became responsible for her ritual and moral behavior, a female, whether a minor or an adult, was not counted in a minyan nor eligible for the honor of being called up for the reading of the Torah. She was under the authority of her father, and later her husband, and did not enjoy the moral or legal autonomy of the adult Jewish male.
The ceremony of bar mitzvah that developed in the Middle Ages–there was no ceremony at that time for the bat mitzvah–was a ritual in which the boy reaching maturity would be called up for the reading of the Torah on the Sabbath following his birthday, or, often in Eastern Europe, on the following Monday or Thursday morning. If his bar mitzvah took place on the Sabbath, he would chant the haftarah, a selection from the prophets. There were local variations. In some places the bar mitzvah boy would lead the congregation in prayer or, on the Sabbath, also read the weekly Torah portion in the traditional chant. In synagogues that followed both the Ashkenazi (northern European) and Sephardi (Iberian and Levantine) rites, boys were tutored to deliver a special Talmudic discourse to display their learning and reflect well on their families. After becoming a bar mitzvah, the boy was required to put on tefillin (phylacteries) in daily morning prayer. The bar mitzvah celebration itself, while accompanied by special blessings and often a festive meal, was generally a modest affair.
As Jews in Western Europe and the United States acculturated to the mores of the larger society in the nineteenth century, the bar mitzvah ceremony was diminished in significance. Group confirmation ceremonies generally accorded well with Christian customs and had two additional benefits: they allowed Jews who were sensitive to charges that JUDAISM disparaged the female sex to incorporate girls in the ceremony and they could be scheduled in mid-adolescence, permitting a longer period of study of Judaism than did the bar mitzvah rite. Reform, or Liberal, synagogues particularly in Germany and the United States, virtually eliminated the bar mitzvah ceremony in favor of CONFIRMATION.
The twentieth century witnessed the reemergence of the bar mitzvah, even in Reform synagogues, especially in the United States. One Jewish historian even pointed out in 1949 that "the bar mitzvah has become the most important milestone in a Jew's life in America" (Levitats, p. 153). The children of the large number of East European Jews who immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924 were eager to retain the custom, even as many affiliated with the Reform movement. The bar mitzvah ritual also enabled economically successful American Jews, from the 1920s on, to combine consumerism with their child's rite of passage. The festive meal that sometimes accompanied the bar mitzvah ritual in traditional Jewish societies became the occasion for a catered celebration, often complete with band and dancing, that marked not only the child's, but also the parents' new status. Gift-giving accompanied the modern bar mitzvah and also added a commercial element to the day. From the 1930s on, rabbis and communal leaders criticized the excessive lavishness of the bar mitzvah "affair" and its subordination of spirituality to secular celebration.
The ritual celebration of a girl's becoming a bat mitzvah is essentially a twentieth-century American phenomenon that reflects growing concern in America with gender egalitarianism. Although girls were included in group confirmations in the nineteenth century and there are references to bat mitzvah ceremonies in Italy and France, the first documented individual bat mitzvah took place in the United States in 1922. Conservative Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, later the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, decided to celebrate his daughter Judith's religious majority with an innovative ceremony in his new synagogue in New York City. However, the bat mitzvah rite did not become common in America until after World War II. It flourished first in the Conservative movement and, once the Reform movement reestablished the importance of the rite of bar mitzvah, in Reform synagogues as well. Under pressure, Orthodox Jews in America began marking a girl's religious majority, within the constraints of their understanding of Jewish law, in the 1970s. In Israel a girl's bat mitzvah is generally celebrated only with a party, outside the synagogue and with no religious elements.
In the modern period, as adolescence became a newly recognized period of life, the bar/bat mitzvah ritual became a rite of passage, not from childhood to adulthood but from childhood to adolescence. The popularity of the rite in the United States reflects the child-centeredness of American and especially American Jewish society as well as the continued strength of religious tradition in America. The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, which takes place in a communal setting, enables Jews to link an event centered in their family with the celebration of group survival, a central concern of post-Holocaust Jews.
See also: Adolescence and Youth.
Geffen, Rela M. 1993. Celebration and Renewal: Rites of Passage in Judaism. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
Hyman, Paula E. 1990. "The Introduction of Bat Mitzvah in Conservative Judaism in Postwar America." YIVO Annual 19: 133-146.
Levitats, Isaac. 1949. "Communal Regulation of Bar Mitzvah." Jewish Social Studies 10, no. 2 (April): 153.
PAULA E. HYMAN