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The bar mitzvah is a Jewish rite of passage for boys who have reached the age of 13. The bat mitzvah is the same ritual, but it is for girls—bar means son in Hebrew, and bat means daughter. The full phrase means “son/daughter who has become subject to the law.” This is with reference to the fact that in Jewish tradition, children are not considered responsible for their actions until they reach the age of 13 (or age 12 in some of the more conservative Jewish traditions). In fact, children under this age are not required to follow the commandments in the Torah, though naturally this is encouraged so that they begin to understand what will be expected of them when they are older. Instead, responsibility for the actions of the child lies with the child’s parents. The bar/bat mitzvah, then, is observed for two important reasons: (1) it celebrates the entry of a child into the world of adulthood, with all of the privileges and duties that this entails, and (2) it celebrates the freeing of the parents from responsibility for the deeds of their child.
In many Jewish traditions, the bar/bat mitzvah is celebrated both at home and in the synagogue, as a part of religious services. In most cases, the person being bar/bat mitzvahed is expected to read from the Torah and recite a special blessing before the assembled worshippers to show that he or she is now ready to participate as an adult in the religious community. The ceremony is followed by a celebration held either at the child’s home or at an entertainment venue. In some ways, this celebration echoes the secular “sweet 16” party traditionally held for girls on their 16th birthday, as well as the quinceañera, a celebration for girls in Latin America as they turn 15 (quince means 15 in Spanish).
The bar/bat mitzvah is a major event in a Jewish family and is usually celebrated with a party, a trip, or a special meal, often attended by the extended family. In the United States, the parties held to celebrate the bar/bat mitzvah have become increasingly lavish over the years, with each family seeming to compete against others in an effort to outdo previous parties by offering more and more elaborate entertainments. This trend has been featured, often satirically, in movies such as Keeping Up With the Steins.
Because it is not unusual for families to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a bar/bat mitzvah (food, entertainment, venue rental, gifts, hotel accommodations, etc.), a thriving industry of bar/bat mitzvah coordinators, suppliers, and planners has emerged. In this respect, the b’nai mitzvah (the plural, non-gender-specific form of bar/bat mitzvah) has increasingly come to resemble the wedding industry: Both events are seen as hugely important, once-in-a-lifetime milestones that must be elaborately planned and flawlessly executed. Many bar/bat mitzvahs are organized around themes, which provide both guests and host with ideas for decorations, costumes, and gifts that coordinate with one another; themes range from Rain Forest to Roaring Twenties and even to Star Trek.
Judaism is not a monolithic construct, with the same practices being performed in the same ways by all adherents of the faith. Rather, it has developed many different forms, and each of these forms attracts followers for different reasons— some for their modern, liberal interpretation of spirituality, others for their strict adherence to tradition and dogma, and many more in between. For this reason, Jewish religious practices, such as the b’nai mitzvah, are performed in many different ways, depending on the time, the place, and the preferences and beliefs of the local Jewish community. For example, the Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities do not allow women to participate in religious ceremonies; so those aspects of the ritual are not performed in those communities, and instead, a party or a special meal at home is used to mark the event.
Some Jewish communities have tried at various times to gradually move away from focusing on the bar/bat mitzvah as the ultimate rite of passage. Their reasoning has been that 13 years is too young an age for a person to be considered an adult in any context, even one that is solely religious and does not carry with it privileges such as driving, voting, drinking, military service, and so on. Proponents of the bar/bat mitzvah respond that even in the pages of the Torah it is well understood that a 13-year-old is not truly ready for adulthood, because the Torah lists other ages as the ideal times for various events to occur: work at 20, marriage at 18, and so on. Defenders of the rite also make the point that it is important in the fast-paced modern world—where roles and responsibilities shift unexpectedly, sometimes placing children in the roles of adults and vice versa— for communities to provide rites of passage to their children as guideposts along life’s path.
Critics of the bar/bat mitzvah point to its role in encouraging the proliferation of materialism and its tendency to cause parents to compete with one another to see who can spend the most and who can get the biggest names among entertainers to perform. For some, a preferable alternative to this circus-like atmosphere is the practice of confirmation at either age 16 or 18, similar to that performed in many Christian denominations. Despite efforts to promote confirmation, however, bar/bat mitzvahs continue to set the standard, particularly in the United States, where their extravagance fits well with the nation’s fondness for celebrities and spectacles. While parents may continue to lament the cost of the bar/bat mitzvah in dollars and in aggravation, few are willing to give up the pride and satisfaction that come from making the most of such a special day in their children’s lives.
- Magida, Arthur Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections on Religious Rites of Passage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
- Oppenheimer, Mark. Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.