History of Bar/Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation

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Although the Talmud uses the term bar mitzvah to signify a boy's coming of age, the only accompanying ritual was a blessing pronounced by the father thanking God for ending his responsibility for his son's observance of the mitzvot (commandments). Yet the talmudic understanding of majority points more to the child's new intellectual and moral capabilities than to his new ritual responsibilities. In fact, even minors were permitted to perform many public mitzvot such as being called up to the Torah for an aliyah (reciting the blessings on the Torah) or wearing tefillin (phylacteries) as soon as they were capable of performing them with understanding.

bar bat mitzvah quizOnly later, in the Middle Ages, when the minor was generally not permitted to perform these mitzvot, did it make sense to celebrate their first public observance. By the 14th century, sources mention a boy being called up to the Torah for the first time on the Sabbath coinciding with or following his 13th birthday. By the 17th century, boys were also reading Torah and delivering talks, often on talmudic learning, at an afternoon seudat mitzvah (ritual meal). Today the speech, usually a commentary on the weekly Torah portion, generally takes place during the morning service.

The ritual focus of the bar mitzvah was a source of discomfort to religious reformers in 19th-century Europe. They promoted an additional ceremony (influenced by the Christian catechism) called confirmation, which focused on knowledge of the principles of the Jewish faith. Although first conceived for boys only, girls were included after about the first decade. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a leader of Reform Judaism in America, introduced confirmation in the United States in 1846 in Albany, New York.

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