History of Bar Mitzvah

Originally bar mitzvah meant simply "coming of age." The ceremony developed much later.

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The right of a minor to be called up to the bimah, or pulpit, for the reading of the Torah underwent a similar development among the Ashkenazim (German and Polish Jews). As far back as the 13th century among the Franco-German Jews, the privilege of being called up for the reading of the Torah was withdrawn from minors. Only on Simchat Torah, the last day of Sukkot, could minors enjoy this right. The attainment of religious majority signified the attainment of the right to have an aliyah--to witness the reading of the Torah on the bimah and to recite the blessings over it.

These two religious rights, laying tefillin and being called up to the Torah, became the most essential features of the bar mitzvah observance. In the 16th century it was obligatory to call up the bar mitzvah lad to the reading of the Torah on the Sabbath coinciding with or following his 13th birthday.

Customs Surrounding the Bar Mitzvah Ceremony

In very cautious pious circles, the elders watched lest the bar mitzvah lad be called up to the reading of the Torah before he had attained the full age of 13 years. This might be the case, for example, if the boy's 13th birthday fell on the Sabbath. For safety's sake, the custom arose that still prevails today, that even on the bar mitzvah Sabbath, the boy was not among the seven men [and, in more liberal synagogues, women] called on every Sabbath to the reading of the Torah, but after them. He was called to the reading of the last paragraph of the Torah portion, the maftir, and of the haftarah, the portion of the Prophets that is read after the week's Torah portion.

The bar mitzvah ceremony was not confined to the synagogue. New features were added that shifted the center of the celebration from the synagogue to the home of the parents, such as the bar mitzvah feast and the bar mitzvah drasha (discourse). The party held on the bar mitzvah Sabbath was regarded as a seudat mitzvah, or religious feast.

The religious aspect of the bar mitzvah feast was enhanced in Poland, where the drasha was introduced. In Poland, the center of talmudic learning in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were precocious and highly gifted boys of bar mitzvah age who were capable of delivering an original casuistic discourse in talmudic law. Naturally, these boys were the exceptions, but there were many others who could, with the assistance of their teacher, accomplish this feat of learning. It was a test and display of talmudic knowledge. In many cases, the teacher prepared the drasha, and the boy learned it by rote and then delivered it.

In the 17th century among the German Jews in Worms, the lad was dressed in new clothes bought especially for this occasion. On the Sabbath of his bar mitzvah, he chanted the entire Torah portion. If he happened to have a pleasant voice, he also recited all the prayers before the congregation. Some lads who were not so well versed in Hebrew led only one of the services, either the evening prayers (Maariv), the morning prayers (Shacharit), or the additional Sabbath prayers (Musaf). There were boys who were not able to recite even the week's Torah portion, but every bar mitzvah boy was called up to [make the blessings on] the reading of the Torah and vowed to give a pound of wax for candles to illuminate the synagogue.

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Hayyim Schauss taught for more than twenty-five years at the Jewish Teachers Seminary in New York and at the College of Jewish Studies and the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He was the author of many books and articles on the Jewish religion and its customs, ceremonies and folklore.