Reflecting, Marveling, Looking for Bar/Bat Mitzvah Markers

By Sigal Tavel

Coming of age ceremonies are evident in almost all cultures around the world. In Australia and New Zealand, a party called The Twenty-First marks the 21st birthday of a boy or girl. The Japanese celebrate a similar day for 20-year-olds as a national holiday called the Coming of Age Day on the second Monday of January each year. In many Latin American cultures, Quinceaneras, or girls turning 15, celebrate the passage to womanhood.

In our faith, a coming-of-age ceremony is held when a boy turns 13 and a girl turns 12. For a girl, it is a bat mitzvah, and for a boy, a bar mitzvah. The words bat/bar mitzvah literally mean “daughter/son of mitzvot” (daughter/son of good deeds). According to Judaism, a child’s sins before the bar/bat mitzvah all go to the parents. During the bar/bat mitzvah service, a blessing is said to thank God that the young individual now takes full credit for both good and bad deeds.

Having my own bat mitzvah led me to wonder what other people thought of this important coming of age marker. Many of my contemporaries this year have begun having their bar/bat mitzvahs so I sent an electronic survey on the topic to the middle school students and staff of the Hasten Hebrew Academy. The 22 respondents ranged in age from 12 to 60 years old. Almost every respondent agreed that the definition of a bar/bat mitzvah was “a celebration of growing up” or “the moment when a girl or boy begins to shoulder more responsibilities.” What this means to most people is that those who were once children now have more responsibilities, more mitzvot, more Torah, more learning, and more putting into practice what has been learned.

During this process, I came across some interesting responses which I had not anticipated. For instance, when asked what the purpose of a bar/bat mitzvah was, one person responded that instead of simply becoming an adult, period, a boy or girl is trusted to actually become one: The celebrant has to prove him or herself worthy of becoming an adult. Another person viewed a bar/bat mitzvah as the celebration of attaining a higher understanding of Judaism, instead of the usual answer: “Reading the Torah during the service.”

Another enlightening comment was written in response to the question: What is the most meaningful aspect of a bar/bat mitzvah? This respondent replied that it was the celebrant’s message to the community, instead of the community’s message of congratulations to the celebrant, meaning that the responsibility lies with the celebrant who publically promises to his community that he will fulfill all the responsibilities required of an adult from that day forward.

While these responses were interesting and enlightening at times, in some ways I was left feeling that most of these explanations were hollow, lacking a certain depth that I had hoped to uncover. These responses were all ideas I’d heard before – all the typical responses people usually say. I was hoping to discover a more profound idea of what it means to grow up and what the process of growing up means to different people in my community. For instance, the responses are elusive regarding whether growing up is solemn or fun, whether it should be celebrated or deplored. Maybe the answers are indeed buried within the responses I received, or perhaps I did not ask the right questions. Maybe I’m expecting too much, and maybe the services, the party, and the meals are sufficient markers for this important coming of age in my faith.

I’d like to think that a deeper meaning lies beneath all the fun celebrations – something that occurs when the celebrant remembers his or her childhood and regretfully watches it go, is happy and content with his family and friends, and begins to think of what he might grow up to be: reflecting on the past, marveling in the present, and looking toward the future.

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