Bar­mitz­vah through the ages

You’re 13: what does it mean?

The Jewish Chronicle - JC Magazine - - Contents - By

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

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