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A great many people are under the impression that one must have a ceremony to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It is true that there is a good reason for a ceremony or a festive meal, but the truth is that becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an automatic process.
There is no such thing as "having a bar Mitzvah." At the start of the first day of the fourteenth year of a boy's life -- the day of his thirteenth birthday -- he is a "bar Mitzvah," a "son of the Commandment," meaning he is required to keep the Mitzvos that all Jewish men are required to keep. A girl, on the day of the start of the thirteenth year of her life, becomes a bat Mitzvah, a "daughter of the Commandment," in that now she is required to keep the Mitzvos that all Jewish women are required to keep. It is synonymous with being a Jewish adult, or Jewish young adult. Since boys mature more slowly, they take a year longer to be considered young adults. (Obviously not all boys mature at thirteen, and not all girls mature at twelve. However, that is the average date, and certainly at that age all healthy children should be expected to have begun adolescence.)
Therefore, as an adult, a Jewish person is a bar or bat Mitzvah. No Jew needs to do anything to become one. One does not need to "have a bar Mitzvah." There is no real ceremony that changes anyone's status in that regard, and the meal itself bears no real relation to becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The meal isn't even necessary.
A convert, upon converting becomes a "bar Mitzvah," a "son of the Commandment," or a "bat Mitzvah," a "daughter of the Commandment."
If you're older than twelve or thirteen years old, and you never "had a bar Mitzvah," don't worry about it, because there's really no such thing as "getting bar Mitzvahed." There is no actual ceremony. There is a Custom in many Orthodox communities (not all) to call up the bar Mitzvah to read from the Torah, or to say the Blessings over the Reading of the Torah, but this is also not necessary in order to "become bar Mitzvahed." As I explained, being a bar Mitzvah means being at the age where you are required to do the Mitzvos, the Commandments of the Torah.
However, if you are a girl twelve or older, or a boy thirteen or older, what you should be concerned about is learning about the Commandments of the Torah and how to fulfill them joyfully. That's what being bar Mitzvah or bat Mitzvah is all about.
Nevertheless, the Custom of making a Feast on the day a boy becomes a bar Mitzvah is very old. According to the Midrash, the Patriarch Abraham made a Bar Mitzvah Feast for his son Isaac. The Torah tells us, "And the child grew, and was weaned. Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned" (Genesis 21:8). What is meant by "weaned?" Rabbi Hoshaya taught, "It means when Isaac was weaned away from the Evil Inclination" (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 53:14). At age thirteen, we begin to develop the maturity and intelligence to make proper decisions, and thus we attain the ability to overcome our Evil Inclinations when we so choose. Thus, we are weaned from our Evil Inclination. And it is then that are able to accept the responsibility of the Commandments.
The Midrash continues, "What does it mean that Abraham made a 'great' feast? It means that great people attended. People such as the righteous Shem and Eber" (ibid). (The Midrash then proceeds to prove this by means of exegesis.)
So if the feast is unnecessary, why have it at all?
Jewish Law tells us to make a bar Mitzvah feast to celebrate the fact that the young man has now become required to observe all the Commandments of the Torah. Here are the words of one source of Jewish Law:
It is a Mitzvah (i.e., a good and obligatory deed) to make a meal on the day one's son becomes a bar Mitzvah, just like the day of his wedding.... The reason for the meal is because he has now become an adult Jew who is now required to observe all the Mitzvos (Commandments) of the Torah. This has the status of a Feast of Mitzvah. If, however, the meal is not held on the day he becomes 13 years, but is held on some day later, then the bar Mitzvah should lecture on Torah teachings, and then the meal will have the status of a Feast of Mitzvah.
-- Mishnah Brurah §225:6
This is the key point: he now becomes required to observe the Commandments. This is something to celebrate! Why? Because fulfilling the Comamndments joyfully is the very reason Hashem created us.
There's an interesting comment about this in the Talmud. The Talmud teaches that a blind person is not required to keep the Positive Commandments of the Talmud. This is a general rule in the Talmud. (Not required means they are still allowed to, of course.)
The Talmud says that Rabbi Yosef, who was blind, taught that if blind people suddenly became required to keep the Commandments, he would make a feast to celebrate it. It is from there that we understand the full import of this concept.
The Bar Mitzvah Feast is to celebrate the good event. We must therefore use the feast to impress upon the young man the responsibilities he now assumes, to ingrain in him the importance of being an upright Jew and fulfilling the Commandments.
It is therefore not a time for partying. The very idea of a party is antithetical to the purpose. It is devoid of meaning, or at least of the original meaning and intention.
Instead, many bar Mitzvah celebrations have become stages for one-upmanship -- and I wish I could say that this does not happen among the Orthodox.
My community was shocked over a bar Mitzvah feast that an Orthodox Jew made for his son. It was held in an expensive hall, but otherwise conformed to the proper decorum for a bar Mitzvah feast. Yet we all felt that the message conveyed to the bar Mitzvah was that enjoying wealth and luxury is more important than the spiritual.
I once worked for a man who wrote a number of columns for various periodicals, in various languages. I translated his ideas into English. His field of expertise was raising and teaching children. We once received a letter in which a woman wrote to ask what she should do about her son. "We made a fancy bar Mitzvah party for him, and he received a lot of presents, yet he has not matured. He still plays his video games, and does so many childish things."
My boss, in his article, pointed out a number of things to the lady. He said, first of all, that maturity does not occur in one day. He also pointed out that the mother may be giving the boy the impression that the lavish party and the presents are the important aspect of the event. If so, how could she expect him to do anything but continue to be engrossed in physical things? She must make him understand that the important thing is that he is now mature, and must begin to focus on spiritual things, like his studies, for example.
Unfortunately, this attitude is too prevalent, at many different levels, and in all segments of Jewish society.
Here is how it should be done:
The typical Ultra-Orthodox bar Mitzvah feast includes a two or three course dinner (or, more rarely, a smaller breakfast or lunch), at some low-budget but tasteful hall. There are always several prestigious Rabbis in attendance, a few lectures on Torah discourses including some praises of the bar Mitzvah boy as well as exhortations to assume his responsibility and proper decorum. Some bar Mitzvah feasts will also have a one-man band (on a synthesizer), but many don't.
Often the bar Mitzvah will give a Torah discourse discussing the Mitzvah of tefillin. Often the men and boys will dance together, showing their joy at welcoming the bar Mitzvah into the responsibility of Mitzvos. And most of the presents given are holy books that discuss the Torah, though often people give money. Someone very close to the family will probably give a kiddush cup.
All in all, the atmosphere is one of joyful respect and decorum.
Another thing found in plenty at most bar mitzvos: cake. The women "go to town" (so to speak) in baking cakes. Some of what they do is true artwork. I have seen sculpted cakes, and ... well, words fail me. I have seen cakes in the shape of tefillin, or a Torah scroll, and all sorts of such things. These cakes are usually baked by friends or relatives. (They also seem to be offered mostly to the women, for some reason.) Are these cakes necessary? No. I don't think they hurt, though.
This is in stark contrast to what many others do for their sons or daughters. Some time ago, my wife went to a bat Mitzvah party for her cousin (whose family is not Orthodox), which was held in the same hall their parents got married, Terrace on the Park, which happens to be one of the MOST expensive halls in New York State.
They had a disc jockey. The hall was set up as a disco. When people came in, the bat Mitzvah was on top of a two-foot high platform, with lights flashing around her, and she danced for everyone (which is in itself forbidden). From time to time, the disc jockey would call out dance instructions: "Everyone point to Erica!" (the bat Mitzvah), and "Erica, dance with your mom!" and that sort of thing. (Personally, this sickens me. Even some non-observant attendees called it gaudy.)
The cousin who paid for this ... event (what else can I call it?) said to my mother-in-law that "Bar and bat Mitzvahs are in, sweet sixteens are out."
No one there cared anything about the concept of Mitzvah, and consequently, this was not only a travesty, but also included numerous transgressions of Jewish Law.
This is the reason that the leading Rabbi in America of two decades ago (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory) once wrote that if it were permitted for a Rabbi to discontinue a time-honored custom or a Law, he would outlaw the bar Mitzvah feast altogether, since so many people have used the bar Mitzvah party as an opportunity to commit sins.
So keep these things in mind. A bar and bat Mitzvah is about the Mitzvah.
Now, a word about bat Mitzvah celebrations. While it has not existed as a traditional custom, there is nothing forbidden about making one, as long as all Jewish Laws are adhered to in the making and celebrating of the event. By all proper means, let the girl feel proud that she is assuming the preparation of adult Jewish life. In no way do I disparage or discourage women or girls, or their desire to elevate that same special time of their lives. But just as is expected of men and boys, let their intentions be for the sake of Heaven, not just to have a good time, or "to be equal."