The Age Requirement for Bar/Bat Mitzvah

How Old is Old Enough?

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But physical signs are not enough. He must attain a certain age as well. "From the point of his birth until he is 13, he is called a boy or a baby. Even if within this period he grows a couple of [pubic] hairs, these are not considered evidence [of maturation], but [only] a mole [with hairs]."

Moral Maturity

However, 13 is not an arbitrarily determined transition point based solely upon its being associated with a boy's physical coming of age. Moral maturation also occurs at this point, as the midrashic collection Avot deRabbi Natan indicates. "The evil inclination...grows with and accompanies the child from the moment it comes forth from the mother's womb. A child who begins to violate the Sabbath is not deterred; a child about to take a life is not deterred: a child about to commit an immoral act is not deterred. After 13 years, however, the good inclination is born in him. If then he is about to violate the Sabbath, it warns him."

Rabbinic literature appreciates this process as a gradual movement into adulthood rather than a sudden, absolute, and singular moment of transition. So while a 13-year-old boy's vows are accepted as binding, his testimony regarding real estate negotiations is not, because though he is 13 and a man for some purposes, for others he is still only a boy, lacking in sufficient knowledge to be held liable. Moreover, 13 is not an absolute beginning just as it is not an absolute end to the maturation process; thus, upon examination, a boy's vows even from the age of 12 and one day will be accepted.

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Dr. Debra R. Blank

Dr. Debra R. Blank teaches liturgy at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was ordained in 1984.