History of the Bar-Mitzvah – Tefillin, Aliyah, Mitzvot

The Great Feast

The great feast which is celebrated for a Bar-Mitzvah perhaps has the most ancient sources. In Bereshit Rabbah the midrash comments on the verse with regards to the party Abraham made for Isaac (Gen. 21-8) The child matured and was weaned. “Rabbi Hoshiah the Great said that he was weaned from the Evil Inclination. The Rabbis said that he was weaned from nursing.” In Yalkut Shimony it explicitly states that he was then thirteen years old.

On this Midrash the Torah Shelema  says that this is the source for making a feast when a child is Bar-Mitzvah. The Torah Shelema additionally quotes the Zohar Hadash (Gen. 15) “Rabach explained that on the day he (Isaac) was `weaned’ he left him to study Torah, for this reason he was happy: in the happiness of Torah.” Such is the true happiness of a Bar-Mitzvah that the young man will busy himself with Torah.

As a great institution the Bar-Mitzvah feast started to spread among the Jewish communities some four hundred years ago. A source of this is “Minhagey Vermaisah” of Rabbi Yozfa Shamash, which states: “The father dresses his son in new cloths which are nice. He wears them at the beginning of Shabbat. At Mincha [for Seuda Shlishit] he makes a great feast. The Shamash does not invite the community to this feast, instead an hour before Mincha the young Bar-Mitzvah boy himself invites those who are to participate. He goes to their homes wearing his new clothes and invites them to participate in the third meal with him. They then came feasted and drank and made merry with the young man, his parents and their acquaintances.”

Since this time Bar-Mitzvah feasts have become more popular, indeed they have become one of the cornerstones of Jewish life. All Jews celebrate it and the customs of different communities widely vary. Some communities made rules limiting the size of Bar-Mitzvahs to one type of meat while others made great parties similar to wedding receptions. In Ancona they ruled that no body should make any feast, only the friends and relatives should come to say “Mazal Tov”.

Isaac Rivkind has a theory of how the custom of having a feast started in Europe. He cites the Maharshal  “The Bar-Mitzvah feast which is done by the Ashkenazim, it seems that their is no greater a Mitzvah feast than this…, and they praise the L-ord and thank him that a young man has merited becoming a Bar-Mitzva,  and greater is the one who is commanded and performs than one who performs without being commanded. The father merited to enter his son into the covenant of the Torah in its entirety.

Rivkind goes on to say that some attribute the custom to Abraham, citing the above Torah Shlema. Rivkind, himself believes that the real source is feasting for a Bar-Mitzvah is the Zohar Hadash which says “Rabbis Isaac said, from 13 years old it is a Mitzvah upon the righteous to make a feast just like the day a person gets married. From here the concept made its way into halachic works.

The Magen Avraham, whose rulings were accepted in Poland and amongst most Ashkenazim , quoted the above Zohar Hadash Additionally, “Kav Hayashar” said with reference to feasts, including Bar-Mitzvahs that it is good that the poor be amongst those invited to the feast. Kav Hayashar further said with reference to Bar-Mitzvahs that it is a great requirement to make a great feast on that day, since it is pleasant to The Holy One Blessed Be He.”