The term “Bar Mitzvah” refers to two things: As soon as a Jewish boy turns 13 years old he automatically becomes a “bar mitzvah”, and is recognized by Jewish tradition as having the same moral and ethical responsibilities for his decisions and actions as a full grown man. However, the term “bar mitzvah” also refers to the religious ceremony that occurs in most Jewish communities to mark this occasion.
The term for girls, meanwhile, is “Bat Mitzvah“; traditionally a girl becomes bat mitzvah at age 12, although some modern communities mark the entry into Jewish adulthood for all genders at 13.
While historically generally only boys marked their bar mitzvah with a public ritual or ceremony in a synagogue, today most Jewish communities have special bat mitzvah ceremonies for girls as well.
In modern times bar and bat mitzvahs have become not just religiously but also culturally significant events, and are considered one of the most important milestones in a Jewish person’s life. They’re normally celebrated with a synagogue ceremony as well as a huge family party, and gift giving for both boys and girls is expected.
Why age 13? Or 12?
Ages 12 and 13 have been associated in Jewish tradition with puberty and a degree of maturity, as well as an expanding of consciousness and intellect. It is at this point in life that we are considered to be responsible for our own religious and moral obligations.
The source of age 13 actually goes all the way back to the Torah: at 13 years old, Jacob’s son Levi is the youngest person who’s referred to as a “man” in the Bible. The Mishnah or Oral Torah (part of the Talmud) interprets this as an indication of the start of adulthood, and further specifies that the ages of responsibility for following God’s commandments are 13 for boys and 12 for girls.
Why is the age lower for girls? The Talmud interprets the Creation story from the Torah as pointing to an earlier maturity in women, because the Hebrew term referring to creating Eve can also mean “understanding.” Since women are believed to mature earlier than men, it’s considered appropriate for them to start taking responsibility for their actions at an earlier point as well.
Where does the Bar Mitzvah ceremony come from?
The concept of a synagogue ceremony to celebrate a boy becoming a bar mitzvah likely developed in the Middle Ages. Turning 13 comes with significant religious ritual obligations and abilities for a boy, including those associated with public synagogue worship such as counting in a minyan (prayer quorum) and being able to read from the Torah during services – and so, a practice developed of marking the occasion in synagogue with a public blessing, and eventually also having the bar mitzvah boy read from the Torah and/or lead services.
Eventually, the bar mitzvah celebration became associated with a festive meal or party as well.
The custom of celebrating a girl’s bat mitzvah with a ritual and/or party, meanwhile, goes back in certain communities to at least the 19th century, while a more formal synagogue ceremony became widespread in the 20th century.
What does a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony entail?
There is actually no specific formula for either a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah ceremony, though many Jewish communities have developed their own customs and expectations for what this religious coming-of-age ritual entails.
At the same time, there is also often room for customization based on the child’s needs or comfort levels.
Many synagogues and rabbis expect a period of study beforehand in order to demonstrate Jewish knowledge and commitment, and may include a community service component or other creative project.
The ceremony itself often involves being called up to the Torah to recite blessings in front of the congregation and/or read the Torah portion. Other aspects may include giving a sermon or dvar Torah, leading part of the prayer services, or chanting the Haftarah – the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the Torah reading on shabbat.
Tallit & Tefillin
The tallit is considered a key item for a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah and has become associated with Jewish adulthood, as many communities require wearing one in order to lead services or read from the Torah in front of the congregation.
For many boys tefillin is associated with their bar mitzvah as well. Upon turning 13 they become obligated to pray daily with tefillin, particularly in more traditional communities, and it therefore becomes a significant and meaningful bar mitzvah gift.
Gifts for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah
Bar mitzvah gifts and bat mitzvah gifts are a big tradition in most Jewish communities, and are usually given after the ceremony, at the party or meal. While any present appropriate for a 12- or 13-year-old can be given, traditional gifts include Jewish books, Judaica items, jewelry, gift certificates, or money.
If you have a child in your life who’s about to become a bar or bat mitzvah, don’t forget a fabulous gift to help them mark this special milestone!
We have a wide range of Israeli-made gifts that are perfect for bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, as well as helpful gift guides to the Best Bar Mitzvah Gifts for Boys and Gorgeous Bat Mitzvah Gifts for Girls!