Bar Mitzvah: A History

Jewish Publication Society  2014


Bar mitzvahs are an almost universal milestone in the lives of Jewish boys and bat mitzvahs have become very common for Jewish girls. These events combine religious customs with opportunities for secular rejoic­ing. Rabbi Michael Hilton traces the origin of these events drawing on a combination of Biblical, Rabbinic, and secular sources. The book contains numerous nuggets of interest­ing information. Hilton presents historical information that implies that marking the tran­sition to Jewish adulthood was intertwined with the obligation of a son to say kaddish for a parent, a commitment that became especially prominent during times of extreme persecution, like the Crusades, when the adult male population was depleted and younger men were left to say kaddish for their fathers and take up the mantle of communal leader­ship by default.

The evolution of the bar and more recently the bat mitzvah is an opportunity to observe the intersection of mitzvot (commandments), minhagim (custom), historical forces, and changes in communal status including wealth and the influence of secular and non-Jewish society on Jewish customs. Hilton notes that Rav Moshe Feinstein proposed, in 1956, that the ceremony ought to be curtailed since it led some Jews to desecrate the Sabbath and did not bring boys closer to Torah observance. Hilton’s book suggests, then, that the transi­tion to Jewish adulthood is not contingent on this rite of passage but that for many, it is a secular celebration rather than one that marks a transition to taking on adult religious obligations.

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