History and Development of Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah was not a biblical practice. It was introduced during the rabbinic period as a rite where a father, who is satisfied he has raised a son ready to live an engaged Jewish life, comes before his community and recites a blessing in which the father frees himself from monitoring his son's Jewish practices. In the late eighteen hundreds a gradual shift from the parental rite to that of a youth having an aliyah at the Torah (serving as an adult witness to the reading) becomes termed bar mitzvah. As the professionalization of Jewish leadership arises and increasing numbers of families lose proficiency in Jewish practices, more becomes expected of the youth in terms of study and ritual participation. Since rabbis did not necessarily go into their profession because they are good at working with adolescents, they would often push the youth off onto the newest professionals, the cantors. What do cantors know? How to chant from the Torah and lead services, so this is what they taught and teach our youth.

Revisioning bar/bat mitzvah as a meaningful rite of passage is beginning to take hold in some communities and providing support for creating healthier principles, methods of preparation, sharing diversity of ritual options, and ways to have more memorable celebrations is a major goal of Rabbi Goldie Milgram and Bmitzvah.org

Bat Mitzvah appears first as a group ritual for girls in the early nineteen hundreds in Croatia, Germany and Italy and then gets lost during the trauma of WWII, re-emerging in America as an individual ritual, from there spreading again throughout the world.

More Interesting History

Bar Mitzvah is originally a technical term from the rabbinic period for a Jewish male who has reached the age of thirteen and one day, which was their determination of the attainment of religious and legal maturity. In Numbers 14:29, the Torah places the age of majority at twenty years of age. Post-Biblical Jewish law revised the age of maturity downwards, specifying that at the age of thirteen a Jewish boy is obligated to fulfill all the commandments. Bar Mitzvah seems to be entirely rooted in midrash and aggadah (rabbinic lore).

The first reference to thirteen as the age of being commanded to do mitzvot is found in Judah ben Tema's statement in the Mishna, Tractate Avot: "they are thirteen [when they are responsible for] mitzvot,"
hen shlosh esrey la-mitzvot.

Thirteen steadily appears in Jewish literature as an age of religious status change:

Midrash Pirkei De-Rebbe Eliezer 16. At the age of thirteen Abraham rejected the idols of his father Terach.

Talmud Sanhedrin 69b. According to the Talmud, Bezalel fashioned the Tabernacle at the age of thirteen.

Talmud, Yoma 85a teaches that a boy who is thirteen years and one day old should begin to fast on Yom Kippur. He could help constitute a minyan (the quorum for communal prayer).

Midrash Tanhuma Hanidpas, Bo, para. 14, p. 84. (probably eighth century) records the first known technical use of the term Bar Mitzvah:

Can even minors don tefillin? We are taught, "You shall observe" (Exodus 13: 10), i.e. everyone who learns to observe can [learn to] do. This eliminates minors because they are not bound to observe. But, if a minor is Bar Mitzvah [i.e., obliged to observe] and bar deah [i.e., knowledgeable], he is obligated to don tefillin.

Bereshit Rabbah 80:10 and Midrash Lekah Tov on Genesis 34: 25 and Midrash Sechel Tov on Genesis 34:25 and Midrash Ha-Gadol on Genesis 34:25 all note that Simeon and Levi, during the sack of Shechem in retaliation for their sister Dinah (Genesis 34) conclude that they were thirteen years old and thus legally culpable for their actions.

Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Edut 9:8, states that at the age of thirteen, a youth could serve as a member of a bet din (a Jewish court), and could buy and sell property. The notable exception was that the testimony of a thirteen year old is not considered valid regarding real estate because he is "not knowledgeable about buying and selling".

There are limitations to the status of this evolving adult which are transformed at age twenty and in some places fifteen, most notably complete responsibility for one’s deeds (Numbers 1:3 and 26:4). Josephus says he was examined by the elders and found "commendable" at the age of fourteen. The biblical age for mandatory military service is twenty in these passages.

Bat Mitzvah can be undertaken from age twelve onward in many communities because 12, and sometimes 12 and 6 months was specified in Jewish law as when a girl was marriageable at certain points in Jewish history.

On March 18, 1922 was Judith Eisenstein’s Bat mitzvah, done solo, the first one in North America.

This event originated by the unique and decisive action of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who desired to mark his daughter’s Jewish maturity in a manner parallel to that done for males.

Here is a segment of a newspaper entry written upon her death:

"The oldest of the theologian's four daughters, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein was encouraged by her father to question and challenge Orthodox views:

"When I was 11, I told my father that I didn't believe in God," she recalled during an interview in 1994. "There was a sense of freedom and freedom to change. There was a constant opening up of possibilities and enrichment" with his view of Judaism, she said. "It made my being Jewish a great joy for me rather than a burden," she said.

At the age of 12, and under her father's tutelage, she completed the very first Bat mitzvah at the newly founded Society for the Advancement of Judaism in Manhattan.

Her father had thought of the idea only a day before. That night, she practiced reading the Torah portion with him:

"I didn't work on it the way kids work on it now, for a half year with lessons every week," she said in 1922.... "All I did was read it through with him Friday night, and Saturday morning I went into the synagogue and did it," she said."

Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, "First Bat Mitzvah, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein Dies at 86," February 23, 1996

From 1922 to the present, equality of participation in Jewish ritual and legal affairs for women and men has advanced exponentially. Since Judaism contains the broadest spectrum of types of practicing Jews, political positions, and the usual range of human prejudices, the effects of such systemic change are uneven at this early point in history.

Many Jewish communities now treat girls and women equally to men in terms of becoming B-mitzvah, leading services, reading Torah, signing Jewish legal documents and serving in leadership positions. Some communities do retain substantial boundaries between men and women's roles and only hold a coming of age party for girls, without religious ceremonies, or with permission for her to give a d’var Torah but not read from the Torah in community. In some of these latter communities women have organized women-only services and hold a full bat mitzvah experience in that context.

The involvement of women in B’nei mitzvah has led to the beginning of the 50% of Torah commentary that has not yet been created, an emphasis on the Torah of relationships. This is a very exciting time in the evolution of Judaism!