The age of a girl or boy becoming obligated in mitzvot is mentioned in the Gemara, and codified in halakha * At that age, the yetzer ha’tov (good inclination) enters a person, in other words, the ability to accept responsibility, and act for the Clal * Parents who embellish the mitzvah prepare with their children towards the age of mitzvot, and initiatives such as journeys to discover family roots, or encounters with exemplary figures, are considered a mitzvah * True, in the past, Bat Mitzvah’s were not celebrated, but Bar Mitzvah celebrations were also rare * Today, when financial means have improved and the minhag is prevalent, it is appropriate to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah as well, and preferably, the Bat mitzvah girl should prepare a sermon, and even make a siyyum on an important book
The Questions Concerning Bat and Bar Mitzvahs
Bezrat Hashem, this Thursday evening we will celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of Yiska, our first granddaughter who turns twelve. We do have an older grandson, but since he has to wait until he is thirteen, his Bar Mitzvah celebration will only take place in another three months.
There are three questions worth exploring before the celebration. First, is it a mitzvah to celebrate? Second, why until the last few generations did observant Jews not have a Bar Mitzvah party? Third, is there a difference between boys and girls? In order to answer these questions, the foundation and significance of the mitzvah requires clarification.
The Change of Status upon Coming of Age
The time when all the mitzvot of the Torah become obligatory is when adolescents reach the age of mitzvot, however, before that, they are still considered ketanim (young), and the Torah did not obligate them in mitzvot. Indeed, before children reach the age of mitzvot, it is a mitzvah from the Torah to teach them Torah, in order to familiarize them with the Torah’s values and so they will observe the mitzvot, as it is written: “Listen, Israel, to the rules and laws that I am publicly declaring to you today. Learn them and safeguard them, so that you will be able to keep them” (Deuteronomy 5:1). Therefore, our Sages said that together with the mitzvah to teach children Torah, they must be taught to observe the mitzvot. In other words, included in the mitzvah to teach them Torah, they must be trained to fulfill its mitzvot as best as they can (Sukkah 42a). However, in practice, the obligation to keep every mitzvah is derived from Divrei Chachamim (rabbinical ordinance).
When they grow up and are able to take responsibility for their actions, they will be obligated to observe the mitzvot from the Torah – a daughter from the age of twelve, and a son from the age of thirteen (Nida 45b; S.A., O.C. 616:2). The very age at which youth are obligated in mitzvot is founded in ‘Halakha le’Moshe Mi’Sinai’ (a law given to Moses at Sinai).
Why Daughters Predate
Our Sages explained in the Talmud (Nida 45b), that a daughter becomes obligated in mitzvot a year before a son, since God “endowed woman with more understanding than man,” and therefore, she is able to bear responsibility and commit to mitzvot already at the age of twelve, whereas a son, only at the age of thirteen. However, this halakha is not agreed upon by all, and according to Rabbi Shimon Ben-Elazar, a son is obligated in mitzvot at the age of twelve, and a daughter, at the age of thirteen. The reasoning for this is because “as a boy frequents the house of his teacher” (to learn Torah and a profession) “his shrewdness (i.e., wisdom of life) develops earlier.” Tosefot explained, that even when he doesn’t have a rabbi or a teacher, since he is used to going out into the market-place and seeing the world, he becomes clever before a daughter who is not used to leaving her home. In practice, however, halakha goes according to the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, and as explained in the Mishnah, that girls enter mitzvot first at the age of twelve, and boys at the age of thirteens (S.A., O.C. 616:2).
The Entry of the ‘Yetzer Tov’ – The Acceptance of Responsibility
Our Sages said, from the time a person is born until he reaches the age of mitzvot, he has a yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination), but when he reaches the age of mitzvot, he also receives the yetzer tov (good inclination) (Avot de’Rebbe Natan 16). Seemingly, one could ask: usually, babies and little children are cute and good. Why then did our Sages say that they only possess a yetzer ha’ra? On the other hand, adolescents are the ones who occasionally tend to be brash and disobedient. Why did our Sages say precisely at that age the yetzer tov enters their being?
To be more precise, the essence of the yetzer tov is expressed in a person’s ability to understand the world and choose to perform good deeds in order to perfect it, whereas at the early stages of life, little children are self-concerned, and unable to understand the world and choose to act to make it better. Even when a little child performs good deeds, usually it is done to obtain a prize or a compliment, or out of fear of punishment for bad behavior. This is the meaning of the yetzer ha’ra in a young child, namely, an inclination of self-concern. As he grows older, he is instilled with the yetzer tov as well, and from then on, has the ability to be responsible for his actions, and becomes partner in Clal Yisrael’s responsibility to observe Torah and mitzvot. Therefore, from the time girls and boys reach the age of mitzvot, they are able to be shlichim (emissaries) for the fulfillment of mitzvot, such as attesting to tevilat keilim (the immersion of utensils in a mikveh), and they are also able to perform mitzvot and discharge other’s obligation of the mitzvah, such as saying kiddush on Shabbat, or lighting Chanukah candles for the family. And if they ate, they are able to recite a bracha out loud, and thus discharge the obligation of others (Peninei Halakha: Brachot 1:10).
The Mitzvah of Joy at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah
It is a great joy for a Jewish boy or girl to reach the age when they become obligated in mitzvot, because from then on, the virtue of the mitzvah’s observance is on a higher level (Baba Kama 87a). Therefore, it is mitzvah to have a seudah (ceremonial meal) on the day of entering mitzvot, which is a simcha (joy) of adherence to the mitzvot. The custom is that during the seudah, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah stands before those gathered, and gives thanks to Hashem for the merit of committing themselves to the mitzvot, and to be part of the great mission of the Jewish people. Words of Torah should also be spoken, as an expression of their full responsibility for the observance of the Torah. And even the parents should thank Hashem for the merit of raising their children, and bringing them to this point (Yam Shel Shlomo; M.B. 225:6). It is also customary for Talmedei Chachamim and relatives to say words of Torah at the seudah, and bless the Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
In a similar fashion, it is related in Zohar (Zohar Chadash, Vol.1, 18:2) that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai invited Torah scholars to eat at a great seudah that he made, and in which he was extremely happy. They asked him why he was so happy, and he replied: ‘Because on this day, my son Elazar has reached the age of thirteen, and a holy soul descends upon him.’ The meaning is that until the age of thirteen, only the nefesh is revealed, whereas from the age of thirteen, he is also able to absorb the neshama (soul), and this is the meaning of accepting the yoke of mitzvot, and the instilling of the yetzer ha’tov.
Even concerning the simcha that Avraham Avinu arranged for his son Yitzhak Avinu, some meforshim (commentators) say that it was on the day he reached Bar Mitzvah, as written: “The child grew and was weaned (ve’yigamel). Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned (higamel)” (Genesis 21: 8). They interpret the word higamel as meaning that he was “weaned” from bondage to the yetzer ha’ra, and instilled with the yetzer ha’tov (Berashit Rabbah 53:10, according to Matnat Kehuna). From this seudah, a great sanagoriah (defense) is stirred for the sake of Israel, “for militzei yosher (advocates in the Heavenly courts) say before HaKadosh Baruch Hu, ‘Ribono shel Olam (Sovereign of the world), look at your children, how glad they are to enter into the yoke of your mitzvot.”
The Customs of the Party
The mitzvah is to hold the seudah on the exact day of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, which is the birthday of twelve year old girls and thirteen year old boys, which is the real day of joy. When it’s difficult to have the seudah on the exact birthday, it can be held a day or two later, since the joy of entering the age of mitzvot still continues. However, in order to strengthen the mitzvah at the seudah, even though it is not on the day of entering mitzvot, a lot of divrei Torah should be spoken (see, Yam Shel Shlomo in Baba Kama 7:37; Magen Avraham 225: 4). And it is also good for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah to make a siyum on an important book.
It is good to buy new clothes for the son or daughter entering mitzvot, and for them to recite the She’hechiyanu blessing on them, and also have in mind to give thanks for entering the yoke of mitzvot on that day (Ben Ish Chai, Re’ah, 17). Even when forced to postpone the party for a day or two, it is good for them to recite She’hechiyanu over the new clothes on their birthday, the day when they enter the yoke of mitzvot.
Customs Leading Up To the Simcha
Parents who mehadrim (embellish) the mitzvah, study with the boy or the girl before their Bar or Bat Mitzvah about the meaning of Torah and the acceptance of mitzvot. Some parents even embellish the mitzvah by planning a journey for their children in which they deepen their acquaintance with the roots of their family, their grandparents etc., thus linking their private joy to the glorious chain of generations of the Jewish nation. Some parents’ custom is to introduce their children to Talmedei Chachamim and educators, or Jews engaged in important mitzvot, such as settling the Land, helping others, or developing science for the benefit of humanity, thereby connecting their personal responsibility to keep the mitzvot to national responsibility and tikun olam (perfecting the world). In a similar way, it is related in the Tractate Sofrim (18: 7) that anshei Yerushalayim would take their Bar Mitzvah sons to be blessed by Talmedei Chachamim. Some have the custom for the boy or girl to speak about their family-root journey at the Bar or Bat Mitzvah seudah.
Some poskim argued against celebrating a Bat Mitzvah, a minhag that did not exist among Jews in the past, claiming it is a mimicry of Gentile customs, and a breach of tzniut (modesty) (see, Igrot Moshe, O.C. 1:104). Perhaps in the past there were grounds for their claims, but today there is no reason to take their opinions into consideration. The reason for this is that in the distant past, apart from individuals who embellished this mitzvah, most families did not even celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of their sons. Apparently, due to impoverishment and the burdens of work, many people did not celebrate joyous occasions when they did not have to. However, since it is appropriate to celebrate the day when a child enters the yoke of mitzvot, in recent generations when the workload decreased, and people became richer, are more easily able to pay for a simcha, and can free up the time needed to participate in it, the minhag of celebrating Bar Mitzvah’s spread to all Jews. And since in the past, the common practice in the world was that women were less likely to leave their homes out of modesty, even a Bat Mitzvah was noted only within a family’s home, by buying a new and festive garment (Ben Ish Chai, Re’ah 17). However, the more women began to work outside the house in various jobs, and take responsibility for public affairs as well, the more common was the need to celebrate the day of entering mitzvot with a large party, to the point where the minhag of celebrating a Bat Mitzvah with a seudat mitzvah became widespread (Sredei Aish 3: 93; Yaskil Avdi, Vol. 5, O.C. 28; Yabiah Omer, Vol. 6, O.C. 29).
Siyum of a Book at a Bat Mitzvah
Therefore, it is a mitzvah to celebrate the day of one’s daughter’s entering mitzvot, and just as boys are prepared to read and study Torah for their Bar Mitzvah, it is also appropriate for girls to study Torah and prepare a sermon on the value of the Torah and mitzvot for their Bat Mitzvah. And if possible, before the Bat Mitzvah celebration, it would be good for the daughter to study a book of halakha, or another important book, and make a siyum at the party.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.