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Philosophy of Bar/Bat Mitzvah
Jewish tradition describes different stages in the development of the soul/body relationship.
- The soul first descends into the world when the child is a fetus in its mother’s womb. At this stage, the fetus has a completely pure soul without any desire for evil at all. According to tradition, an angel teaches it the entire Torah during this time. The soul experiences an untainted, pure perception of the truth. The child, must, however be born into this world of concealment and illusion in order to achieve moral success through its own free will and its own struggle.
- At birth, the “evil inclination” enters a person, i.e. he or she loses that incredible clarity that they possessed before entering this world. The soul’s desires are overshadowed by the physicality of the body and its yearning for spiritual fulfillment is muted by ego, selfishness and materialism. Childhood is a time when the physical world and its entire overwhelming desires rule over the human being, and the soul and its aspirations are largely dormant. It is for this reason that a child is not held legally responsible for his/her actions.
- Toward the end of childhood, during a girls twelfth or a boys thirteenth year, the soul begins to awaken and manifests itself more overtly.
- When the child reaches adulthood, the soul has reached its full level of activity and therefore this person now has complete free will. He or she is able to choose between good and evil, the spiritual and the material, between egotism and humility, to engage in a full range of moral decisions. Since they now have both a “good inclination” and an “evil inclination” and the ability to choose between the two, they are fully accountable for their actions.
The greatest milestone in the life of a young boy or girl is becoming a bar/bat mitzvah; reaching adulthood. According to Jewish law, a girl becomes an adult when she becomes 12 years old, and a boy becomes an adult when he becomes 13 years old. The literal translation ofbar(masculine) andbat(feminine)mitzvahconveys the real significance of becoming a Jewish adult. The term means one who is obligated to perform the commandments. In addition, they may now enter into legal contracts, incur legal obligations, and are regarded as adults in nearly all matters.
In the Western world, reaching legal adulthood usually means that one now has certain rights that he or she did not have before. The “new” adult now has the right to drive, vote, buy cigarettes and alcohol, get a credit card and so on. It is a time to enjoy doing many things that previously not allowed; a celebration of rights and the loosening of restrictions. This view is in stark contrast to the significance of bar/bat mitzvah. We celebrate the fact that the child has matured sufficiently to become obligated in the mitzvos. In addition, we celebrate the fact that mitzvos are not only obligations but also gifts from G-d; opportunities to become better people.
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Parents train their children to perform mitzvos long before they are obligated to do so. They encourage them to anticipate adulthood by accepting certain responsibilities before their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The mitzvah of tefillin, however, is approached very differently. Wearing tefillin requires physical cleanliness, purity of thought and the ability to focus on the tefillin as long as they are being worn. Because of the sanctity of tefillin and the maturity necessary to properly fulfill the obligations upon one who wears them, a boy does not begin wearing tefillin until shortly before his bar mitzvah day.
- In some communities, he begins practicing putting them on two or three months before the bar mitzvah day. Most commonly, the boy begins one month before, while in other communities he first puts on tefillin on the day he becomes a true bar mitzvah.
- If the boy begins wearing tefillin before his bar mitzvah day, it is customary to arrange a small festive breakfast at the synagogue or at his school on the morning that he first puts on tefillin.
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Reading from the Torah
One of the most obvious consequences of a boy reaching the age of bar mitzvah is that he participates in the synagogue service as an adult. He may now be counted as part of a minyan and may also be called up to the Torah and read it for the congregation. To mark this change in status, it is customary for the boy to be called up to the Torah at the earliest possible opportunity. If he becomes a bar mitzvah on a day when there is Torah reading (Monday, Thursday, Shabbos, Yom Tov or special occasions) he is called up that day. If there is no Torah reading on that day, he is called up on the next occasion at which the Torah is read.
- In many communities, it is the common practice for a boy to read the portion of the week on the Shabbos immediately following or coinciding with his bar mitzvah day.
- In other communities, the boy is called up to the Torah, reads only the last section of the weekly portion , theMaftir, and then reads theHaftarah, the section of the Prophets that is read after the last section of the Torah reading.
The idea behind these customs is to impress upon the bar mitzvah boy the significance of this day and of the new responsibilities which rest upon him. The blessings that the boy recites before and after the Torah reading are the same ones recited every time a person is called up to the Torah. On this day, however, they bear special significance for him.
Before reading from the Torah the bar mitzvah boy recites the following blessing: (For the blessings in Hebrew please click here)
Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who selected us from all the peoples and gave us His Torah. Blessed are You, Hashem, Giver of the Torah.
After reading from the Torah the bar mitzvah boy recites the following blessing:
Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who gave us the Torah of truth and implanted eternal life within us. Blessed are You, Hashem, Giver of the Torah.
After the boy recites the second blessing, his father recites a most unusual blessing:
Blessed is the One Who has freed me from the punishment for this boy.
- “In the public community… of which he [the bar mitzvah boy] has now become a member… he makes a declaration over the Torah, to the fulfillment of which his life is now dedicated. For the first time, he declares the comprehensive resolve concerning the Torah in its presence: that he dedicates himself to the service of Him Who has chosen Israel for a special task in life, and has given them His Torah for its fulfillment. He promises to be loyal in the service of Him Who has given us the Torah of truth, thereby implanting eternal life in our midst. On the same day, the father also declares his resolve to fulfill the task set him by this new relationship with his son… From this day, it is the son who now independently bears the blame, as well as the merit, for his own life.” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, 6, Avodah, Chapter 111, paragraph 681)
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Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Celebration
The Bar Mitzvah celebration is traditionally celebrated with a festive meal for family, friends, rabbis and teachers. Ideally, this celebration should be held on the actual day that the child becomes a bar mitzvah. Speeches on Torah subjects are traditional at the meal. Torah thoughts are expressed to inspire the bar mitzvah boy in his new stage in life. Many communities hold a similar celebration for a Bat Mitzvah. In some circles, a Kiddush (a celebratory reception) is held at the synagogue on the Shabbos closest to the girls bat mitzvah birthday in lieu of a larger public reception.
- There is clearly no obligation to have a reception worthy of a coronation. The excesses of the modern Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration are a departure from ancient customs, and they may actually send a message to the boy or girl that is the antithesis of this holy occasion.
- “If I had the power, I would abolish the extravagant Bar Mitzvah ceremony that is the custom in this country [the United States]. For as it is known, it has not brought even one person closer to the Torah and the mitzvos, let alone the bar mitzvah boy, not even for a short time. On the contrary, in many places it has led to transgression of the Torah...” (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:104)
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The Torah Blessings
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The Haftorah Blessings
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Torah Trope (cantillation marks)
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Haftorah Trope (cantillation marks)
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