Breaking Down the Bar Mitzvah

The Bar Mitzvah is the ceremony by which a young, Jewish male comes of age. It is usually held either on the boy’s thirteenth birthday, or on the first Sabbath day that follows.

Prior to the age of thirteen, a Jewish boy’s parents are held accountable for his actions. After the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, that responsibility belongs to the boy alone. In fact, “bar mitzvah” in Hebrew simply means “one who is subject to the law” (and so, properly, the term refers to the boy rather than to the ceremony). In addition, the boy becomes eligible by Jewish law to own property and to marry, though these rights are seldom exercised in the modern day at such a young age.

As an adult, the celebrant may also read from the Torah at public Torah readings, and is considered part of a minyan, the ten-male-adult quorum required for public worship and for receipt of the priestly blessing (“May the Lord bless you and guard you; may the Lord make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you; may the Lord lift up His face unto you and give you peace”).

Along with these rights, the young Jewish male takes on certain responsibilities upon coming of age. Chief among these is the wearing of the teffillin — parchments with Biblical passages written on them. These are worn on the head and on the arm, near the heart, and are a reminder of the obligation to serve God with the body, mind, and spirit.
The origin of the ceremony is lost in history. However, many Jewish scholars believe that the Biblical passage from Genesis 21:8, “And the child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned[,]” refers to the day that Abraham’s son was “weaned” from his nature as a child and became an adult. It is therefore thought that this passage describes the first Bar Mitzvah celebration.
Bar Mitzvah ceremonies are often accompanied by lavish celebrations. The boy generally receives gifts, commonly of an educational or religious nature, and is expected to make a short speech, which traditionally begins with the words, “Today, I am a man.” The celebrant’s father often speaks as well, thanking God for removing from him the responsibility for his son. In recent years these parties have become increasingly elaborate, with some wealthy families putting on enormous extravaganzas, costing thousands of dollars. However, more traditional families condemn these as wasteful, and consider them to detract from the essential religious nature of the ceremony.