History of the Bar-Mitzvah


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

Rivkind (.) commented 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 Tefilin several months early. Rivkind further says that
people who are pious follow the custom to don Tefilin 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 Tefilin, if he can properly take care
of them (.) Others are accustomed to teach a child to wear Tefilin
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 Tefilin are donned several months
before and all of the feasts are done then. This was traditionally
called “Yom HaTefilin” – The day of Tefilin, 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
Tefilin for a child of ten. They purchased a simple pair of Tefilin
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 Tefilin all of
the close relatives, rabbis and friends each wrap the Tefilin
once around the arm. This is certainly nicer than the current
superficial custom of honoring people to light a candle at the

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 Tefilin
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

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

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

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

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