The Parents' Blessing: Baruch She-p'tarani

The bar mitzvah ceremony is medieval, but a bar mitzvah blessing appears nearly a millenium earlier.

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"Nowadays it is customary to say the blessing at the point at which the youth prays or reads on the first Sabbath [after his 13th birthday] such that it will be publicly known that he is a bar mitzvah. In such a case, the father says, "Blessed is He who has now freed me from the responsibility of this boy."

The customary understanding of this blessing, according to Gumbiner, is that "up until now, the father has been punished when the son sinned because he had not educated him [as it is assumed that it is the father's responsibility to teach the child]."

Because this blessing is mentioned not in the Talmud, but only in the midrashic literature, which is held to be of secondary legal importance, there is some discussion about whether or not it has legal standing. Hence the question is asked whether or not the full blessing formula that includes the name of God (Barukh atah adonai, eloheinu melekh ha 'olam) should be used, or whether an abbreviated version of the formula without this formal address should suffice.

The first reference to this question appears in Moses Isserles' comment (16th-century Poland), "It is good to say [the blessing] without the [formula containing God's] name and sovereignty.…" The question regarding its legality may actually have arisen because of a larger ambivalence. Originally just an age-of-majority status, bar mitzvah had become a ritual ceremony, which in Isserles' time was likely a recent innovation. Since people were now saying the blessing in a public ritual setting, authorities worried about its propriety.

Generally today the form of this blessing is established by local practice, some saying it in its longer form and some preferring the truncated version. In either case--in the 14th-century claim about an eighth-century practice, as well as today--it is said when the son reads from scripture, at precisely that point when he enters (tangibly) into the cult of Torah.

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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.