One such rite for those of the Jewish faith is the passage into adulthood in a religious, and to an extent, a social sense. The b’nai mitzvah, bar mitzvah for boys and bat mitzvah for girls, are the ceremonies established for this purpose.
The ceremony takes place when a boy turns thirteen, or a girl twelve or thirteen, and afterwards, the child is then considered an adult within the religion, expected to take on the responsibilities thereof so that they may help to teach others the ways of the Jewish faith. These responsibilities include praying, observance of the Sabbath, fasting when it is required, and other such things.
While such things were considered mainly the responsibilities of those who were becoming adult males, it has evolved over the centuries to include females to one extent or the other as well, although Orthodox churches still tend to exclude women from performing many of the tasks that have traditionally been the roles of the male. The word “mitzvah” is defined as a commandment, while “bar” and “bat,” respectively, mean son and daughter.
These terms indicate that those going through the ritual are now at a point where they can fulfill the commandments, becoming responsible members of the faith and be welcomed into the adult population. From that point on, the child is considered an adult “for purposes of participating in synagogue ritual” (Fox and Zimbler 18-19). According to Cohen and Weinrott, “The goal of the bar and bat mitzvah is to enter the larger community, while at the same time recognizing one’s own unique individual spiritual and social circumstances” (5). Bar and Bat Mitzvahs Page 2 of 9
The first indication of the practice of the bar mitzvah seems to be in the Talmud several centuries ago during the Second Temple, when it is recorded that the sages would “bless a child who had reached the age of thirteen and who had fasted on Yom Kippur” (Lewit and Epstein 5). At that time there was no ceremony involved, only the declaring of the boy as bar mitzvah on his thirteenth birthday. He was considered an adult then, expected to follow the laws and take responsibility for himself instead of being considered the responsibility of his father.
It was in the thirteenth or fourteenth century that this transition became formalized in such a way that resembles the ritual practiced today. The ceremony then led into a meal to celebrate the boy’s transition, and by 1595, this feast became “so sumptuous that a communal tax was placed on the celebration to stop such excesses” (Cohen and Weinrott 11). The bat mitzvah was not such an illustrious occasion as early as the bar mitzvah. The Talmud records that, around the second or third century, girls came of age at twelve to fulfill the commandments.
Women were not obligated like men to engage in most religious exercises, their responsibilities instead revolving around home and family. While this age was considered important, it was not until the seventeenth century that it was considered important to celebrate the occasion. France and Italy celebrated with a ceremony in the middle of the nineteenth century at the latest, but it was not until 1922 that girls were accorded the same ceremony as boys with their bat mitzvah, when Mordecai Kaplan of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, who founded Reconstructive Judaism, held the ceremony for his daughter.
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