Becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah
By Elliot Goldenberg / June & July 2012
FOR HUNDREDS, if not thousands, of years, Jews around the world have been becoming bar and (more recently) bat mitzvahs -- the "bar" for 13-year-old boys, and the "bat" for 12-year-old girls. The bar mitzvah, especially, is a traditional rite of passage for Jews as noted in the Talmud, the codification of the Jewish Torah.
The term "bar mitzvah" can be traced back to around the 14th century and perhaps even earlier. "Bar mitzvahs have actually been taking place, in some form, since Biblical times," said Rabbi David Baum of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh in Boca Raton, whose synagogue does "around a dozen, or so, bar and bat mitzvahs a year."
"The term bar mitzvah means a child has come to the age of Jewish adulthood, and that he is now obligated to perform commandments," Baum added. "It is a time when the parents of the child, and the larger Jewish community, open their arms to a younger generation -- and the future of Judaism."
It's only in the modern era that girls have been having their own bat mitzvah ceremonies. The first American girl to become a bat mitzvah -- the ceremony took place on May 18, 1922 -- was Judith Kaplan.
The bat mitzvah was performed by Judith's father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Judaism's Reconstructionist movement, who wanted to give females equal standing with the males in a synagogue.
According to Jewish tradition, prior to the bar or bat mitzvah, the child's parents are completely responsible for their son's or daughter's actions. Afterwards, those young adults bear much of their own responsibility for maintaining Jewish ethics, and, as part of the community, can also participate in all aspects of Jewish communal life.
Among the adult responsibilities is the eligibility to be called to read from the Torah (only males are allowed to do this in Orthodox services), as well as an obligation to follow the 613 laws of the Torah.
Rabbi Paul Plotkin, of Temple Beth Am in Margate, said his synagogue held around 20 bar and bat mitzvahs combined this past year. The rabbi was asked if the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony is still as significant today as it was in the past.
"The bar mitzvah hasn't really changed since the beginning of time," Plotkin said. "As for the ceremony, it's not transformative anyway.
"It's like in The Wizard of Oz. The scarecrow got a certificate from the wizard, but it doesn't mean the wizard actually gave him a brain. So it's not the ceremony that remains important -- it's more the concept."
Rabbi Charles Aronson is presently not affiliated with any synagogue, but plans to open a Hebrew center soon in Parkland.
"Right now, I give my students full training in Hebrew instruction, including tutoring in reading, writing, history, and the celebration of the holidays," Aronson said. "The center will even better prepare them for their bar and bat mitzvahs and help make them even more proud to be Jewish."
Hebrew school is closely associated with the preparation for the bar and bat mitzvah, as tens of thousands who had to attend Hebrew school following regular school hours can attest.
As for the fun part of it all -- the parties following the bar mitzvah service -- these always joyful (and often lavish) events have become far more commonplace following World War II.
Another aspect of the bar and bat mitzvah that has changed over the years is that, in the past, so many boys used to get fountain pens as gifts that the standard bar mitzvah joke was, "Today I am a fountain pen." That is no longer said, since the fountain pen is every bit as rare as the inkwell.
The ritual of the bar and bat mitzvah -- and the thread of Jewish continuity it represents -- is, by all accounts, still going strong.
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