As significant as a bar mitzvah is meant to be, unfortunately, some less religious Jewish families see it as merely a duty to endure or a graduation-like ceremony for the Torah study the boy is required to do in preparation for the occasion. The parties can be very elaborate and costly, much like a wedding reception, but such parties are a modern-day invention and were unheard of even 100 years ago.
A bar mitzvah, in fact, is not a biblical practice. Only sometime between the first and third centuries AD, did Jewish literature acknowledge that the age of responsibility was 13, and how that age was determined is not clear. There is no evidence of a special ceremony before the Middle Ages. Today, some Jewish sects question the early age of 13 and celebrate “manhood” at 16 or 18. However, even without a ceremony, a young man is held accountable to Jewish law (Torah) as soon as he becomes of age.
Today, most bar mitzvahs include a Shabbat service and a meal. Families from abroad often travel to Israel, and many choose to celebrate at the Western Wall rather than in a regular synagogue. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation offers families a special tour of the Western Wall tunnel that is designed to connect the bar mitzvah (son of the commandment) to his ancient heritage. They even offer to teach the boy to lead the tour himself!
Emanu Braverman, a Jewish mother of nine, asked, “How do you enjoy the party and maintain the focus?” She wanted everyone to remember it as more than just a great party. “It’s about recognizing that inherent in the concept of relationship [with God] is the idea of responsibility. And that responsibility is the real joy. Having obligations and using those obligations to connect to the Almighty is the ultimate happiness.”
To help attain this lofty goal, the boy dons a tefillin (phylactery) for the first time (other than during practice). He then does part or all of the following at a Shabbat service: recite the blessing for the reading of the Torah, read the entire week’s Torah portion, recite a Haftarah (reading from the prophets) portion, or lead the whole service. After finishing, the boy declares, “Today, I am a man,” and his father praises the Lord that he is no longer responsible for his son’s sins.
At the party, there is music and much joy as the bar mitzvah dances with his friends and gifts are received. As a sign of adulthood, he is encouraged to give a percentage of his gifts to the poor, sometimes for a boy whose parents can’t afford to give their son his first tallit (prayer shawl), tefillin, or party.
According to Harold Kushner, author of To Life!, the ceremony is usually more meaningful to the parents than the young man, who at 13 most often is going through it just to please his parents. It gives the parents a sense of accomplishment that now their son “has acquired the skills necessary for living a Jewish life” and comforts them to know that he will “continue to carry on the family identity…the next link in the chain of generations.”
To see footage of a bar mitzvah taking place at the Western Wall, order our new Jerusalem Mosaic DVD.
By Charleeda Sprinkle, Assistant Editor
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