Bar is Aramaic for son, and mitzvah is Hebrew for commandment. "It literally means son of the commandment." A bar mitzvah is the milestone event which transforms a son from a boy to manhood, and full participation and responsibilities in the community. The young person is then able to be counted in the minyan, and can have an aliyah. They are then required to fast on appropriate days and have adult religious responsibilities.

Bar mitzvah is one of the more misunderstood elements of modern Judaism. While those in the USA may have a good idea of what's involved, many people around the world confuse it with another male Jewish rite of passage; the bris. Yes, I've met a few people who believe that at thirteen years old, a Jewish boy stands up in front of his friends and family to have his foreskin removed. Happily, this is not the case.

The bar mitzvah is essentially a modern innovation. The nearest scriptural source is in the Mishna.

Pirke Avot 5:25

He (Yehudah ben Teyma) would say: "A son of five years old for reading, twelve for Mishna, thirteen for Mitzvah, fifteen for Gemara, eighteen for Chupah, twenty to earn a living ...."

This passage was taken to mean that a male's legal responsibility began at age 13. After this time, he can sign contracts, make up a minyan (religious quorum), and generally start doing actions with real consequences.

Actually, the Halacha (Jewish law) doesn't merely use the age as a factor for adulthood, but also physical maturity. It's all in the pubes. There need to be at least three (I think) pubic hairs, with one on the left and one on the right. In some communities, the Rabbi will ask the boy if he fulfills the conditions, but (and I wonder why this is), that's pretty rare.

Bar mitzvah -- meaning son of the commandments -- happens automatically when a Jewish boy turns thirteen, by the Jewish calandar. Some people argue for the official time to be thirteen years and one day.

One of the new rights given to a bar mitzvah is being allowed to be given an Aliyah, or "called up", to the Torah. This means he is allowed to recite the blessings on the weekly reading in synagogue. For hundreds of years, a bar mitzvah boy would go along to the next Torah reading after he turned thirteen (on a Saturday, Monday or Thursday morning), ang get his Aliyah, and maybe a handshake afterwards.

Somewhere in the late nineteenth century it all started becoming a much bigger deal. Part of this trend probably came from an increasing secularisation among European and American Jews, and a related trend of poor Jewish education. There seemed to be a real communal need to have a rite of passage.

So the modern Bar Mitzvah was born. Children were encouraged not just to say the Torah blessings, but to read a bit from the scroll and maybe the Haftara too. The whole family was invited. It was seen as a way to at least teach boys Hebrew and some religious law. The United Synagogue in Great Britain requires boys to pass a "bar mitzvah test" before any ceremonies were allowed, as a way of forcing them to do some learning.

Of course, parties grew up for bar mitzvahs; after all, the family has come all the way from Chicago, and the Goldblooms threw such a good bash for their bar mitzvah. Quickly, the parties overshadowed the event itself and the modern bar mitzvah was born.

The US Reform movement argued that bar mitzvahs were counter-productive and too early. They experimented with a "confirmation" ceremony at the age of eighteen. It didn't really catch on, and where communities did introduce the practice, they kept the bar mitzvah anyway.

Today, bar mitzvah is a really big deal all over the Jewish world, with one exception; Israel. There, they tend give a child an Aliyah as soon as possible (even a Monday or Thursday morning), and just get it over with. There are always a lot of bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but a lot of these are from abroad.

The ultra-Orthodox communities don't make that big a deal out of it either, though often it is from bar mitzvah that their boys start wearing black hats.

A Bar Mitzvah

A Bar Mitzvah is, quite simply, the name for the ceremony of the passage into manhood. This is for Jewish boys/men. This ceremony is long and arduous, requiring many, many, many tedious steps, and "challenges."

"Bar Mitzvah" literally means "son of the commandment." "Bar" is "son" in Aramaic, which used to be the vernacular of the Jewish people. "Mitzvah" is "commandment" in both Hebrew and Aramaic. "Bat" is daughter in Hebrew and Aramaic. (The Ashkenazic pronunciation is "bas")

This ceremony is usually performed around the ages of 12 or 13 years of age. During the years preceding this "coming of age" passage, a kosher jewish boy will probably spend many, many, many hours reading the Torah and other Hewbrew texts so that he will have the scripture almost memorized when the time comes to read the sacred texts at the alter. I have been to two such ceremonies and they are extremely long. Both were upwards of 3 hours, which is not, however, unreasonable given that both of my friends started studying for their Bar Mitzvah's when they were about 8 years old.

It is common practice for the Bar Mitzvah celebrant to do much more than just say the blessing. It is most common for the celebrant to learn the entire haftarah portion, including its traditional chant, and recite that.

It is important to note that a Bar Mitzvah is not the goal of a Jewish education, nor is it a graduation ceremony marking the end of a person's Jewish education. We are obligated to study Torah throughout our lives. To emphasize this point, some Rabbis require a Bar Mitzvah student to sign an agreement promising to continue Jewish education after the Bar Mitzvah.

Gentlemen, the modern Jewish Bar Mitzvah, as it practiced in the suburbs of our great country of America, is essentially about showing off how much money you have. For those unfamiliar with Jews, let me wipe out one of the most pervasive stereotypes: that we are cheap. Not only are Jews not cheap, but during the Bar Mitzvah "period" they are impelled to engage in conspicuous consumption more than any other minority group I know except the Cantonese. The Tlingits of Alaska are famous for something called the Potlach: this is essentially a large party where the richest people in the tribe ritually destroy all their assets, the person who destroys the goods with the largest amount of value becoming the most respected in the town; this is the closest anthropological relative of the modern Jewish bar mitzvah.

For those of you who don't know any Jews what happens is this: a poor, terrified 13 year old is told that he is going to become a man. He makes a pointless, meandering speech. "Today, I am a fountain pen." Depending on how observant his family is, he is possibly called to the Torah in the syngagoue, which means that he chants long passages from the Bible in the original Hebrew, (the odds are he doesn't understand what he's reading) while the elder people in the congregation hiss at him every time he makes a mistake.

Then there's the party. This is the Poltach. People spend unimaginable sums of money to have the "best" Bar Mitzvah parties in the neighborhood. In Long Island where I grew up, these reached mind-boggling proportions. Jugglers, Acrobats, Virtual Reality Machines, expensive caterers, name it, it's there. Everyone the family throwing the party knows need to be invited and beggar the cost: we're talking social status here, one of the few things more important than money. All of the boy's school friends need to be invited at well, and are generally sitting at a special "kids" table with paid entertainers and zoo animals sculpted out of ice, balloons, and, in one memorable Phillip Roth story, chopped liver. There are stories (aprocyphal? True? Anyway the spirit is true) of people who to pay for these elaborate parties. And it seems that the more money is spent the better. Good taste and common sense be damned.

The willingness of the small boy to participate in this is absolutely beside the point. Exactly where a religious ceremony whose point was to emphasize the beginning of communal responsibility became the excuse for a large, joyless party, whose point is to be pointless expensive is a question for a sociologist.

Now, this is not the way things are done in Israel. Generally, Bar Mitzvahs there are modest affairs, done tastefully, small dinners where some close friends and family members are invited, a real rite of passage without some connection to proving a point to the neighbors about you insane ability and willingness to pointlessly give money to mimes. This is also not typical of Jews in general. Stereotypes notwithstanding, we are not a bunch of ill-dressed, tasteless goons spending our ill-gotten money in garish resorts, talking loudly enough to annoy all the Goyim (well, maybe cousin Moishe)...However, when we need to throw a Bar Mitzvah...something happens...

When I originally wrote this node, I included a phrase in the beginning: "God help me, I'm going to be downvoted by every Jewish voter on E2" Not only did that not happen, but a number of people messaged me in agreement that Bar Mitzvah's should be more deep spiritual affairs. To everyone I underestimated (which was everyone, I guess) I humbly apologize, and I can't tell you enough how glad I was that I was wrong.

Many contemporary bar mitzvahs in western cultures, especially America are increasingly expensive, intricate affairs, centered around elaborate parties full of conspicuous consumption. Accordingly, many critics, including some of our own, in writeups above, and in nodes like this one, argue that they are increasingly distanced from Judaism and the tradition's origin (as recent and questionable as it is), and plead for the tradition to refocus itself on Jewish spirituality.

Well, they're half-right. I would posit that these modern b'nai mitzvah are becoming more and more distanced from Judiasm, but there's neither need nor reason to attempt to return it to some ideal sublimity - it is no longer a truly Jewish practice at all, and those expensive trappings which they decry are indicative of its new function, as a co-opted and repurposed coming of age ritual appropriate to the modern society.

What, in the modern age, signifies adulthood, and how should it be celebrated? The signs and rituals of our ancestors are of little to no use. We tend not to breed until comparatively late in life, so sexual maturity is no longer relevant enough. Combat is the domain of professional specialists at one end and the stigmatized underclass on the other, the same for hunting, so the ability to do either has no utility as a ceremony or marker of adulthood. Likewise, absent for the most part a true conception of frontier, nature, or even the unknown in everyday experience, a journey through the wilderness would be neither appropriate nor feasible. And while we're on the topic of the unknown, the aftershocks of the Enlightenment continue to render spirituality or a notion of the divine increasingly remote from our sense of selves.

In comparison, the traditional bar mitzvah, with its preceding study of Hebrew and Torah, incorporates an element of the lifelong education and knowledge acquisition that is a central part of modern adulthood, certainly appropriate for today's world (arguably, the fact that it to a significant extent consists of rote memorization of somewhat arbitrary subject matter makes it more so), but even this is besides the point. It is precisely those aspects of the modern bar mitzvah made the subject of so much kvetching - the over-the-top parties and expensive gifts and cost as the only given, that point to its role as the new celebration of what it means to be a full-fledged member of society. As with all such ceremonies, it serves as a declaration to the world. And what does it declare?

Today is born a consumer.
In a world where scores of cultures and subcultures coexist in the context of, and in part created by, a market society, consumption is the only common social bond, the only practice and tradition shared by all. The timing works out perfectly, the ceremony taking place at the age where individuals first begin to make significant purchasing and brand-identification decisions of their own, through this process first taking on a role and function in the broader society, and by virtue of the identifying function of their tastes in media, clothing, and other areas, creating a discrete and visible identity and aligning themselves with particular cultures, movements, and outlooks on life. The gifts and entertainment perform the same function of the ceremonial shields, masks, and tattoos of "undeveloped" tribes - flamboyant signifiers of the honored's new role, unashamedly meant for public consumption, each different and particular to the person, reflecting their status as full individuals.

It's a great tradition for the new religion to absorb and repurpose aspects of that which it supplants. Many Christian holidays were claimed and incorporated from other traditions, and the Romans were famed for assimilating foreign pantheons as part of their own. This syncretism avoids having to start from scratch when seeking to address a social need already fulfilled by some preexisting institution, maintains a vital sense of tradition and continuity, and eases social tensions caused by such major paradigm shifts. Part of why consumerism has spread so quickly, and so widely, is because it is one of the, if not the, most syncretic religions in human history. (Note here that I speak of consumerism as a religion not in the disdainfully sarcastic leftist mode, but in honesty and with proper respect - profit and commerce have done more to give me a longer and higher quality life, not to mention neat stuff, than Yahweh or Ahura Mazda ever did, and I tithe regularly, at eBay and the mall.) The bar mitzvah is simply the latest tradition to be co-opted in this manner.

Now, where does the bar mitzvah go from here? It's hard to tell - the new tradition for the most part remains confined to the nominally Jewish culture in which it arose, and these things are often a matter of several generations - it took multiple centuries for the Christian Christmas to emerge from the various pagan winter festivals, and depending on how you count the early periods, somewhere from several decades to several centuries to incorporate Christmas, the Jewish Hanukah, and various year-end festivals as the commercial capital-H Holidays. That said, the first thing to be accomplished is the scrubbing or marginalization of the vestigial religious practices - the study and reading lends a sense of accomplishment and growth, but in current form serves only to limit cross-cultural adoption.

That addressed, I foresee the ceremony refocusing on the central purpose and creating new traditions on that basis - for example, it would seem an excellent occasion to first present a child with a checkbook, credit/debit card, or the contemporary equivalent purchasing tool. I've considered suggesting it as a date to first give a child their own radio, television, computer, or the like, so that they might first start to regulate and control their own media intake, but on reflection that would seem appropriate for an earlier, childhood ceremony, starting them on the path to full consumerhood, rather than acknowledging their arrival. But in any case, those are just my ideas, and I yet lack the kind of media apparatus necessary to have such a shaping effect. One simply has to sit back and see.

Of course, I could be wrong. Change speeds up all the time, and though I neither expect nor hope so, something might come along to supplant consumerism before it can fully institutionalize itself. The culture eats its own tail. But keep it in the back of your mind - the present is not exempt from history just because you live in it, and history, as ever, unflaggingly marches on.

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