History of the Bar-Mitzvah


“A youngster who knows how…to care for Tefillin his father [should] give him Tefillin.” Traditionally this was the practice, however, Tefillin has a special rule that a child must not only understand the importance of the mitzvah of Tefillin but he must keep himself very clean and can not pass gas while he is wearing them. Therefore educating a child to wear Tefillin is at an older age than education of other mitzvot, some have even done away with educating a youngster and prevent them from wearing Tefillin until the day of their Bar-Mitzvah.

The above source is cited by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch and explains that care for Tefillin means that he should not sleep while wearing them and will not pass gas  The Ramah adds from the Itur that a “youngster” here is one who is 13 years and one day. He adds that such is the custom and none should differ. The Mishna Brurah adds that before this time he certainly can not properly watch his Tefillin.

Rivkindcommented on this trend with regards to the singular opinion of Itur and the decision of the Mishna Brurah that the Magen Avraham said that still many are accustomed to teach a child to wear Tefillin several months early. Rivkind further says that people who are pious follow the custom to don Tefillin on the day that a child is Bar-Mitzva. This obviously only applies to Ashkenazim, the Sephardic customs will be discussed.

According to Rivkind Moroccans celebrate Bar-Mitzvahs at twelve years old. He goes on to say that this is indeed a kosher custom a cites several interesting sources. I have personally never seen or heard about such a custom and those Moroccans I have asked said that they never heard of such a thing.

In Jerusalem the custom is that from when a child is ten his father teaches him about Tefillin, if he can properly take care of them Others are accustomed to teach a child to wear Tefillin several months before he turns thirteen. On this day the feast would be made like the feast of wedding.  Keter Shem Tob adds that if the family is wealthy they make an additional feast when the lad is exactly thirteen. I personally grew up knowing nothing other than this custom: that Tefillin are donned several months before and all of the feasts are done then. This was traditionally called “Yom HaTefillin” – The day of Tefillin, while the actual thirteenth birthday was called “Yom Hashlamat Haminyan” – the day of completing a quorum.

I have seen only one family of old Jerusalemites which purchased Tefillin for a child of ten. They purchased a simple pair of Tefillin with the intention of buying a nice pair for the Bar-Mitzva. They did not make a great feast.

The Syrian community has a custom that on the day of the Bar-Mitzva (before he is thirteen) when the boy puts on his Tefillin all of the close relatives, rabbis and friends each wrap the Tefillin once around the arm. This is certainly nicer than the current superficial custom of honoring people to light a candle at the feast.

Aliyah Letorah
“The Gaon Rabbi Yehudai of blessed memory arose onto his feet in the synagogue and blessed this blessing [shepetarani] the first time his son read from the Torah.” Here we see that going up to the Torah is the most important part of the ceremony, perhaps at the time it was the entire ceremony.

The subject of going up to the Torah as a pivotal part of the Bar-Mitzva ceremony is in reality separate from the discussions whether a child can go up to the Torah as any other member of the community. This is because going up to the Torah is essential to Jewish life, it is the spring from which the Jews draw their strength. This might be the reason to say Shepetarani when a Bar-Mitzvah boy goes up to the Torah, since at that time the parents see that he is making good of himself and need not worry that he will be caught up with sin.

Even in communities where children younger than Bar-Mitzvah do go up to the Torah, at the time of the Bar-Mitzvah ceremony much fanfare is made. There might be two reasons applicable to this: since the child is now becoming an adult member of the community and all are celebrating, going up to the Torah is a high profile position, much to do is made (throwing candy and the like); those who do not permit children to go up to the Torah make a fuss and others who permit have copied the others.

Sephardim celebrate on the day a child first puts on his Tefillin which may be several months before he is thirteen. At this time he also goes up to the Torah with all the fanfare of a wedding ceremony.

Ashkenazim generally do not permit a child to go up to the Torah at all until the day of their Bar-Mitzvah at which point it is his right to go up and this pushes aside almost anybody else who may have needed to go up.

So far do Ashkenazim take this custom of not permitting children to go up that when Rabbi Yozfa Shamash mistakenly prepared the portion of Tetzaveh which fell out before he was actually thirteen, the Rabbis of the town did not allow him read but made him prepare the portion of Kitisa.

The Custom of Saying Baruch Shepetarani
“Rabbi Elazar the son Rabbi Shimon said `A man must take care of his son for thirteen years, from then on he should say Blessed is the one who has exempted me from the sins of this one'” The Orchot Chaim  said with reference to this blessing that some say it when the son goes up to read the Torah for the first time. The Gaon Rabbi Yehudai of blessed memory stood on his feet and said this blessing the first time that his son read the Torah

According to Rivkind this Geonic source shows that the main part of the Bar-Mitzva ceremony was reading the Torah and saying this blessing. Even more so he claims that this pushes the date of such ceremonies back to the time of the Geonim

Amongst Jews the customs widely vary with regards to saying this blessing. The reason for the differences is that the source of the custom is not a halachic source, instead it is from an Agadic source which in itself is somewhat terse since it says “from then on”.

The Levush had certain misgivings about this custom. He claims with regards to the blessing of Baruch Shepetarani that the reasoning behind it is not clear. Since if a child continues in his fathers transgressions, they are not exempted for many generations as it is said in the verse He (G-d punishes the children for the father’s transgressions . Therefore the Levush suggests making this blessing without the name of G-d or the kingdom.

The Ramah discussed this Levush in the Darkey Moshe and in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch where he stated, “When somebody’s son has become Bar-Mitzvah he should bless … and it is better to say it without the name or kingdom. The Mishnah Brurah says that the opinion of the Grah is that since this blessing is mentioned in the Midrash, it should be said with the name and kingdom

There is additional discussion about the time and place of saying the blessing of Baruch Shepetarani. However, it is generally accepted amongst those who say it to say it at the time the Bar-Mitzva boy goes up to read the Torah.

There are generally three different customs with regards to saying this blessing. Amongst many Sephardim the custom is like the teaching of the Levush and Ramah that it is better to say this blessing without the name and kingdom. Many Ashkenazim also follow this method.

However, there are many others who follow the teaching of the Mishnah Brurah and the Grah who say that this blessing should be pronounced in its entirety. Personally, having an interest in the subject of Bar-Mitzvahs, I have seen most people pronounce this blessing without the name and kingdom.

The third custom is that of the Syrian community and undoubtedly others also not to even say this blessing at all. This is probably because it is not mentioned by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch and also because it is mentioned nowhere in the Talmud.

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.”

The custom of making a speech at the Bar-Mitzvah is as old as the custom of having a Bar-Mitzva ceremony. Speeches are given either at in the synagogue after reading the Torah or at the feast. In Minhagey Vermaisa the custom was to make the speech during the feast which is done during the third meal of Shabbat  “The Bar-mitzvah boy makes the importance of this custom Rivkind quotes  from the customs of Firth that a teacher must teach an orphan a speech for free.

The reason why speeches are of such import is that all people understand that a Bar-Mitzva is hopefully the beginning of the boys practice of Mitzvot and he should start it with the proper footing. A learned speech is therefore most appropriate.

Others have the custom that the lad makes a speech during the feast, which was the custom in Vermaisa. Still others have done away with the custom all together so as not to embarrass those youth who are not learned, also in order to avoid arguments if their are two Bar-Mitzvahs.

Rivkind points out that the speeches were never given in Hebrew but were always in the spoken languages The texts were published in Hebrew so all could benefit. He further says that with the advent of Zionism many people speak in Hebrew.

Rivkind and others discussed at length many different nuances of this custom in all of the different Jewish communities. I will cite some of them here.

In making the speech in the synagogue their are many different places it occupied during the service some said it in between Ashrei and Uba Letzion, others just after the boys Aliya before the next person would go up. Probably the most popular time was on Shabbot after returning the Torah, since in many places this is when the rabbi delivers his sermon. (.)

Torah Shlema, Rabbi Kasher – Parshat Vaerah pg. 845,846 and Toldot pg. 1024,1025

Masechet Sofrim, ch. 18 halacha 7

Kuntress Lebar-Mitzva, Rabbi David Sperber

Keter Shem Tob, Shem Tob Gagin pg. 12-18 and 592

Minhag Bar-Mitzvah, an excerpt of Mingie Vermaisah, Rabbi Yozfa Shomosh

Leot Oolezikaron, Isaac Rivkind, with annotated bibliography

all of the above is available at The National Library

Shai Lebar-Mitzvah, edited by Yechezkel Rotenburg

Matanah Lebar-Mitzvah, Aharon Zakai

Halachot Vehalichot – Bar-Mitzvah, Benyamin Adler

Yechaveh Daat, Chacham Ovadia Yosef vol. 2 responsa 15

Shulchan Aruch with commentaries Orach Chaim 37-3