History of Bar Mitzvah

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

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The bar mitzvah feast was served in the afternoon, as the third meal of the Sabbath. An hour before Mincha (the afternoon prayers), the bar mitzvah lad, dressed in his new clothes, went to the homes of the guests to invite them to the third meal. At the meal, the lad delivered a drasha on the customs of bar mitzvah and acted as the leader in reciting the grace after the meal (birkat hamazon).

Modern-Day Bar Mitzvah Celebrations

There is, in modern times, no uniformity in the bar mitzvah celebration. The bar mitzvah may read the entire Torah portion, the maftir (final portion), the haftarah, or some combination of these, and may deliver a drasha, but he would definitely have an aliyah. There is also a divergence in the custom regarding the tallit, or prayer shawl. In some communities, a boy donned a tallit on the Sabbath of his bar mitzvah, in others, he did not put it on until he was married. The Ashkenazic Jews always present gifts to the boy in honor of his bar mitzvah.

In America, the bar mitzvah celebration plays an important role in Jewish life and is often accompanied by a fancy party and gifts. Rather than having the father teach the son, as was traditional, most children prepare in religious school or with the help of a private tutor.

Sephardic Customs

Unlike the Ashkenazim, the Sephardim do not restrict the rights of the minor. The Sephardim still adhere to the talmudic law, which allowed a minor to put on tefillin and to be called up to the reading of the Torah, and they celebrate bar mitzvah in their own distinctive way.

Primarily, the Sephardim celebrate the first laying of tefillin, which takes place exactly a year before attaining majority. On that day, the parents hold a sumptuous feast for all their relatives and friends, and the boy, if capable, delivers a drasha on a topic pertaining to the occasion. Only the rich hold a second celebration a year later, when the boy reaches his majority.

Among the Jews of Morocco, too, the main emphasis in the bar mitzvah celebration is placed upon the first laying of tefillin. This takes place on the Thursday after the 12th birthday. The feast is held at the home of the parents on the preceding day, Wednesday. On Thursday, the morning services are held in the boy's home, where all the worshippers gather and take part in the ceremony. The rabbi of the community binds the phylactery upon his head. A choir accompanies the ceremony with a hymn. The boy is then called up to the reading of the Torah as the third participant after the Kohen and the Levite (on Thursday and Monday only a small portion of the Torah is read, for which only three are called).

At the end of the services the boy delivers his discourse. Then he proceeds with his tefillin bag among the men and the women present, and everyone throws silver coins into the bag. The boy presents this gift money to the teacher. The guests partake of a breakfast and, in the evening, they again gather in the house. On the following Sabbath, the boy is called up to the reading of the haftarah. This is accompanied by a piyyut, a liturgical poem, composed for this occasion.

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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.