History of B'nei Mitzvah

What is the meaning of b'nei mitzvah?

B'nei mitzvah means, literally, “son/daughter of the commandment,” a term for Jewish adults (over 13 years of age) who are considered obligated in observance and eligible to participate in specific Jewish rituals. Bat mitzvah is Hebrew, while bar mitzvah, historically a much earlier ceremony, is Aramaic. The word bar is the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew, ben (“son”).

What event does b’nei mitzvah (*plural*) mark in Jewish life?

Historically, first bar mitzvah and later bat mitzvah represented a ceremonial recognition that a young person had reached the age when they were obligated to observe Jewish law. The individual was then no longer a minor according to Jewish law and, thereby, took on new religious privileges and responsibilities.

It’s never too late to celebrate becoming b’nei mitzvah! NSCI offers an adult b’nei mitzvah program. If you did not publicly mark becoming b’nei mitzvah at age 13, and you’re prepared to undertake the necessary study, speak to one of NSCI’s rabbis or cantor about enrolling in the adult b’nei mitzvah class. It can be one of the most fulfilling experiences of your adult life!

What is the origin of the b'nei mitzvah celebration?

The bar mitzvah ceremony was developed as a public recognition of a legal and religious status, attained with or without the ritual. In other words, a Jewish boy of 13 years automatically became bar mitzvah even if no public ceremony took place.

The idea of becoming bar mitzvah is not mentioned in the Torah, nor is there any Biblical indication that 13 was the age at which one attained religious majority. Most scholars feel that the association between age 13 and mandated religious observance began during the Second Temple period (between 516 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.).

It was not until the Middle Ages that a fully developed ritual to mark one’s transition into Jewish adulthood emerged. By the 13th or 14th century, the custom of calling a boy up to the Torah was established as the way of recognizing entry into manhood. The bar mitzvah boy would chant the Torah blessings, all or part of the Torah portion of the week, and/or the haftarah reading from the prophetic books. The boy’s father would then recite a special blessing Baruch shepetarani me’onsho shel zeh — “Blessed is He who has freed me from responsibility for this boy.” The bar mitzvah boy would also offer a teaching inspired by the week’s Torah portion. Then followed a gala feast, called seudat mitzvah — “meal of celebrating the performance of a mitzvah,” to which family, friends, and sometimes the entire Jewish community would be invited.

When was the first public bat mitzvah celebration?

Starting in the 2nd or 3rd century C.E., Jewish girls at age twelve took on legal responsibility for the performance of the commandments. As with age 13 for boys, 12 probably corresponded with their onset of puberty. Today, liberal Jews affirm the total equality of women in terms of religious privileges and responsibilities.

The first public bat mitzvah celebration in North America, of Judith Kaplan, daughter of Mordecai Kaplan, was held in the mid-20th century. Dr. Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Jewish movement, scheduled his daughter’s bat mitzvah on Saturday, March 18, 1922 in New York City. Reform and then Conservative congregations quickly adopted bat mitzvah, though in slightly different forms.

And what about b’nei mitzvah parties?

The b’nei mitzvah party derives from the custom of serving a seudat mitzvah — “meal celebrating the performance of a mitzvah,” which arose in the Middle Ages. However, as early as the 13th  century, local Jewish communities were concerned that such feasts might become ostentatious and wasteful displays of wealth, thereby detracting from the ceremony’s religious significance. While the custom of each congregation most often dictates the form of b’nei mitzvah parties, more Jewish families today invest the celebration with deeper Jewish feeling. Parties range in style, including elegant banquets, informal backyard barbeques, celebrations at local venues such as an arcade or skating rink, or family vacations.