History of Confirmation

Confirmation changed the requirements for Jewish "adulthood" by moving the focus from religious practice to doctrine.

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From an early point, the rite was held on Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah. The profession of faith by the young generation lends a moving dimension to a holiday otherwise lacking in physical symbols and folk customs. No doubt Shavuot has remained the preferred time for this rite because of its convenience as well: the occurrence of Shavuot in late spring coincides with the end of the school year. Thus confirmation marks the completion of supplementary Hebrew school along with secular studies.

It was rare that confirmation actually replaced, at least de jure, the ceremony of bar mitzvah, though de facto the latter clearly waned in popularity. In its initial stage, confirmation was conceived simply as a repackaging of bar mitzvah, with a change in the educational focus from practice to doctrinal declaration. To this end, its proponents were always careful to argue that the newer ceremony served a separate educational function. This claim led to a gradual increase in the age of the confirmand to 16 or 17 in order that the child's education would be prolonged and to emphasize the independence of the confirmation from the traditional bar mitzvah. By the 19th and early 20th centuries in North America, confirmation generally eclipsed bar mitzvah among North American Jews, most of whom had arrived from Germany, bringing Reform Judaism with them.

But bar mitzvah has enjoyed a rebirth of popularity and significance among the descendants of those liberal Jews who once dispensed with it. Indeed, by the 1970s, bat mitzvah had become the norm for many Jewish girls just as bar mitzvah was typical for boys.

Reprinted with permission from Life Cycles in Jewish and Christian Worship (The University of Notre Dame Press).

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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.