Barmitzvah through the ages
You’re 13: what does it mean?
IT IS easy to think of a barmitzvah in the same way as a wedding — a Jewish life-cycle event that has always been the cause of major celebration. But looking back into Jewish history, it seems that it used to be a minor occasion, even a non-event.
By around the third century, when the Mishna was codified, 13 was considered an age of special significance and this was considered an age of religious responsibility, perhaps marked with some type of procedure in synagogue.
But in the Talmud, which was codified around three centuries later, there is hardly any mention of “barmitzvah”. Where it does crop up, it refers to a person who has reached religious maturity — not to the coming of age itself.
It is unclear when the barmitzvah as we know it today became commonplace. There are elderly men alive today who will tell you that their barmitzvah consisted of little more than an informal calling up to the Torah during a weekday reading. The Hungarian rabbi and researcher Leopold Löw suggested that the barmitzvah became a fixed rite in the 14th century and even then, only in Germany to begin with. Others put the date earlier or later, but what is certain is that the barmitzvah has grown in importance over the centuries, particularly in the modern era.
Some may interpret the hazy history of the barmitzvah as somehow detracting from its validity and importance. But personally, I find the development of the rite inspirational. In modern times, general society has developed new expectations for the expression of individualism and stressed the need for individuals to publicly mark key moments in their lives. The conception of childhood and adulthood, and the transition between them, has also changed significantly.
The growth in importance of the barmitzvah has been a testament to the dynamic combination of individuality and community that is embedded in Jewish tradition. The barmitzvah boy — or to use the lovely Hebrew phrase, the barmitzvah “groom” — is a star for a day, but it is a celebration for the whole community, normally in the synagogue of the community into which he will grow. It is a celebration not only of the boy’s coming of age, but of his taking personal responsibility — both for his observance and towards his community. Cynics say that today’s youngsters are only interested in themselves, but time and again we see boys rising to the occasion. Remember the refusenik era, when British boys “twinned” their celebration with Soviet youngsters? And what about the increasingly regular reports of boys donating a large part of their barmitzvah money to charity or taking on a social action project?
If the rabbisofthe mishnaic and talmudic eras, who left us with only clues about how they conceive religious coming of age, could see the maturity with which many of today’s 13-year-old boys “get” the important dual message of the barmitzvah (as well as girls with their batmitzvah), I believe they would be exceedingly proud.
At barmitzvah, observance is in your own hands