The Birth of the Good Inclination

In rabbinic texts, the distinction between childhood and young adulthood is the birth of the yetzer hatov, the good inclination.

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poor: because the limbs do not obey the yetzer hatov as they do the yetzer hara.

wise: which gives a person intelligence to follow the good way.

than an old and foolish king: the yetzer hara which rules over all the limbs.

old: for when the child is born, it is put into him, as it is said sin lies at the opening" (Genesis 4:7).

and foolish: for it misleads him in the way of evil…

who no longer knows to receive admonition: for the yetzer hara has become old and does not accept reproof (Rashi on Ecclesiastes 4:13).

Battling for Control of the Body

As Rashi points out, a significant battlefield for the two inclinations is control over the physical body of the adolescent. Rashi's reference to control of the limbs may indicate the typical awkwardness that accompanies adolescent growth, but is more likely a euphemism for control over awakening sexual desire. Since the yetzer hara is older and stronger, few adolescents, in Rashi's view, apparently maintain control over those desires. Rashi's final comment concerning how the yetzer hara "does not accept reproof" describes the real difficulty of unlearning habits and attitudes acquired in childhood.

R. Isaac Arama, the 15th-century Spanish philosopher and commentator, connected the changes around bar mitzvah to the well-known beginning of the Mishnaic tractate on Passover:

For the first 13 years of life, one rebels, but in the 14th year, the light of intelligence appears in him, and then he becomes bar mitzvah and subject to the punishment of a human court. Similarly, our sages, of blessed memory, hinted at this when they said, "On the evening of the 14th we search for hametz [leaven] by the light of a candle" (Mishnah Pesachim 1:1) (Sefer Akedat Yitzhak, 61).

For Arama, the philosopher, the change that signals maturation is intellectual development, and the candle is a symbol of the adolescent's greater ability to perceive the significant legal distinctions, which also makes him liable for punishment in court. The early 19th-century Hasidic leader, R. Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta, Poland, restated Arama's insight in terms of the birth of the yetzer hatov:

On the night of the 14th we check for hametz with a candle, for in Nisan, renewal comes to the world. Israel becomes like a child whose yetzer hatov does not enter him until after 13 years. Similarly, we check for hametz after the 13th night by the light of a candle, on the model of a child who becomes bar mitzvah after 13 years. And then we must remove [literally destroy, l'va'er] all of the bad characteristics [of childhood] (Sefer Ohev Yisrael--Parashat Vayetze).

Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Passover

The association of bar mitzvah with Passover is a fruitful one. Just as Arama understands young adulthood as a time of increased "enlightenment" and the Apta Rebbe as the stage when the bad characteristics are destroyed, others see it as the period when the adolescent gains a certain degree of freedom. Freedom, however, should not be construed simply as freedom from parental control, but rather as freedom to take on more adult responsibilities. As the Israelites left Egypt to receive the Torah, the bar or bat mitzvah (partially) leaves parental authority in order to take on the responsibilities of Jewish adulthood.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.