History, Meanings and Customs
The term Bar or Bat Mitzvah (literally, "son or daughter of the commandments") is a title given to all Jews reaching their 13th birthday to signify that they are now prepared to take personal responsibility for their own religious actions and moral behavior through performing the mitzvot (commandments). It is equivalent to reaching the age of legal majority. No ritual is necessary to establish this status.
Listing the stages in a Jew's life, the Mishnah (Avot 5.21) tells us that "thirteen is for Mitzvah." That is to say, traditional Jewish law holds that it becomes incumbent upon a thirteen-year-old male to fulfill the 613 commandments. From this time unto the day of his death, the Jewish male is a Bar Mitzvah, a "son of the commandment." Additionally, in Reform tradition, a young woman becomes a Bat Mitzvah, a "daughter of the commandment," at 13 years of age. According to Jewish tradition, each Jewish adult is tied to the moral and ritual laws of Judaism as a child is tied to his parents.
Sometime during the 4th century, it became the custom to mark this stage of life by permitting the young man to be one of eight adult males privileged to make ascent (aliyah) to the reading desk on the Bimah on a given Shabbat soon after his thirteenth birthday. He would read some verses of the Torah scroll. Blessings thanking God for the Torah were recited before and after the reading of those verses.
By the 16th century, it became custom to follow this first public ritual appearance with a party sponsored by the Bar Mitzvah's family. This was held in the synagogue or at the family home on the Shabbat during which the young person ascended to the Torah. The very next morning, the Bar Mitzvah resumed his seat in his Talmud class in the community religious school, where he continued to study.
Over the past few centuries, the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Service has emerged as a wonderful way for a 13-year-old to demonstrate a commitment to Judaism. Before their congregation, family and friends, the young person accepts the privilege of reading from the Torah (Five Books of Moses) and Haftarah (Books of the Prophets), and leading worship. In this way, the congregation says to the 13-year-old: you are now a participating adult in our religious community. Thus the Bar or Bat Mitzvah service bears witness to the future and continuity of a Judaism embodied in a new generation of committed Jews. For these reasons, the beginning of a young person's transition from childhood to responsible Jewish adulthood is a time of celebration.
Bar/Bat Mitzvah Tradition at Congregation Beth Israel
At Congregation Beth Israel we continue this age-old tradition of marking a young Jew's passage into adult Jewish responsibility through the celebration of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah occurs as part of our Shabbat morning or afternoon service. The student leads the congregation in Hebrew and English passages from the siddur (prayerbook). Each Bar or Bat Mitzvah also reads or chants from the Serer Torah, a hand-lettered parchment scroll which contains the five Books of Moses. The student chooses a section of the weekly portion and explains it to the congregation, demonstrating his or her understanding of the text. The blessings before and after the reading are shared by family and friends.
After the Torah is read, the young person reads a passage taken from one of the prophetic books of the Bible. This selection is known as the Haftarah (completion) and contains either a thematic reference to the Torah reading or a reference to an event in the Jewish year. In addition, our Bar or Bat Mitzvah prepares and delivers a D'var Torah, literally a "word of Torah" or short sermon based on lessons from the Scriptural reading. Other participants, including members of the congregational family, are honored with roles in the Torah service. Parents offer prayers of thanks and expressions of joy and pride.
Congregation Beth Israel is very proud of our B'nai Mitzvah students and of the commitment to Jewish life and learning that they make on Shabbat through this wonderful Jewish tradition.