Many people are surprised to find out that “becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah” happens automatically when a Jewish boy reaches the age of 13 or when a Jewish girl reaches 12. The ceremony that has become one of the most familiar Jewish rites of passages is actually a rather recent addition in the context of Jewish ritual history. Only in the 14th century do sources begin mentioning a boy being called up to the Torah for the first time on the Sabbath coinciding with or following his 13th birthday. By the 17th century, boys were also reading Torah and delivering talks, often on talmudic learning, at an afternoon meal. Today the speech, usually a commentary on the weekly Torah portion, generally takes place during the Shabbat morning service.
“For the Rabbis, the significance of this life-changing moment lay in the child’s new stage of physical, intellectual, and moral development. They saw 12 and 13 as the ages at which girls and boys, respectively, were no longer entirely subject to impulse, but were beginning to develop a conscience. The term Bar/Bat Mitzvah–which means “obligated to perform the Jewish mitzvot (commandments)–reflects the child’s newfound capabilities and responsibilities.” (ref)
The Bat Mitzvah ceremony observed today grew out of a broader societal focus on women’s rights, with the first American Bat Mitzvah occurring in 1922. The concept of a Bat Mitzvah ceremony within traditional Judaism is far more recent. Because Jewish law limits a woman’s religious responsibilities primarily to commandments that are not time-bound (meaning, not required to be performed at a particular time), a woman’s Jewish activity occurred primarily within the private, familial realm rather than the public, communal one. Beginning with Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan and the Reconstructionist Movement, this lifecycle event quickly spread throughout the Reform and Conservative movements, and variations of a Bat Mitzvah ceremony are found within many Orthodox communities as well.
Generally the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service takes place during the Sabbath morning service, where the child is called up to say the blessings over the Torah–his or her first aliyah. Children may read from the Torah; chant the haftarah, the weekly prophetic portion; lead some or all of the congregational service; and offer a personal interpretation of the weekly Torah portion, called a d’var Torah.
The year of intensive preparation that precedes the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony itself helps ensure a transformative experience for the B’nai Mitzvah and their families. Here at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, the B’nai Mitzvah process begins with the Family B’nai Mitzvah Program, a family education class geared at learning about Jewish responsibilities to those in need and the world in general. Concepts such as tzedakah (financial justice) and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) are discussed and infused into the B’nai Mitzvah process by way of a family Mitzvah project. This project encourages parents and students to join together in acts of social justice, thereby connecting the idea of Bar/Bat Mitzvah with action in the world.
Families will also explore issues of Jewish identity and belief to help build additional levels of meaning to the process. Topics include God, Prayer, Torah, and what it means to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. After these family classes, students will begin meeting with a cantor to learn prayers from the Shabbat morning service, as well as how to chant their Torah and Haftarah portions. In the midst of this training, students will meet with a Rabbi to delve into the meaning of their Torah portion and craft a d’var Torah.