The bar mitzvah customs we take for granted are actually mysterious. Where does the word bar mitzvah come from, why is the bar mitzvah celebrated with an aliyah and seudah, and why does the bar mitzvah fall precisely when a boy turns thirteen?
Pirkei Avos (5:21) tells us, “Five years for Mikra, ten years for Mishnah, thirteen years for mitzvos.” From where do Chazal know that one becomes obligated to observe mitzvos at the age of thirteen? Rashi explains (Nozir 29b) that this is derived from a posuk in which the lowest age of any person called ish (a man) is thirteen: “The sons of Yaakov, Shimon and Levi, the brothers of Dinah, each one (ish) with his sword” (Bereishis 34:25). Shimon and Levi were thirteen at that time.
How does Rashi know that Shimon and Levi were thirteen? He doesn’t really tell us, merely writing that whoever wants to calculate it, let him calculate it. Many took up the challenge and reached conflicting results. According to a calculation of Rabeinu Bechaye (Bereishis 34:25), Shimon turns out to be thirteen, but Levi only twelve. This is not a major problem because the posuk says ish in the singular. Others calculate differently and find that Levi was thirteen as well.
Utilizing the rule that ish signifies thirteen years, the Medrash Raba (63:10) comments on the posuk, “And the boys grew and Eisov became a man (ish) who knew hunting, a man of the field, and Yaakov was a straight man (ish) who sat in tents” (Bereishis 25:27), that the verse is referring to their bar mitzvos: “After thirteen years, this one went to botei medroshos and this one went to houses of idolatry.”
Similarly, Chazal (Sanhedrin 69b) say, “When Betzalel made the Mishkon, how old was he? Thirteen, for it is written (Shemos 36:4), ‘Each man (ish) from the work he was doing.’”
This may have been for good reason. Rashi (ibid 25:8) says that the work of the Mishkon had to be done lishmah, but a minor does not have the da’as required for acting lishmah.
Despite the scriptural source for the age of the thirteen mentioned earlier, a number of Rishonim including the Rosh (Teshuvos 16:1) write that the age of thirteen is one of the shiurim which are a halachah received from Sinai, the same as kezayis and revi’is.
The Rambam rules that a non-Jew has to observe his mitzvos from the time he has sufficient intelligence to understand their import. Estimating that this happens when a non-Jew is ten or eleven, the Chasam Sofer queries why a Jew needs to wait until he is thirteen to be obligated in mitzvos.
He answers that the age difference is because of a difference in the rationale behind our mitzvos and theirs. Non-Jews’ mitzvos are based on logic; therefore, as soon as a non-Jew has understanding, he must observe them.
But the Torah’s mitzvos are above logic and even those which seem rational to us are actually based on lofty concepts. Therefore, we need a halachah from Sinai to indicate when a Jew achieves this special understanding.
OTHER BAR MITZVAH GIFTS
The Midrash Koheles says that a person also receives his yeitzer tov at his bar mitzvah. Commenting on the posuk (Koheles 4:13), “Better is a child who is poor and wise than an old foolish king,” the medrash says that the beginning of the posuk is speaking of the yetzer tov and the end of the yeitzer hora. Why is the yeitzer tov called a child? Because it only joins a person at the age of thirteen. Why is the yeitzer hora described as old? Because it joins a person from his childhood until his old age.
On this basis, the Medrash Raba (53:10) explains that the posuk which says of Yitzchok (Bereishis 21:8), “And the boy grew and was weaned,” is speaking of his bar mitzvah, when he was weaned from the yeitzer hora to the yeitzer tov, and to celebrate the occasion, “Avrohom made a big feast.” According to this medrash, this is the earliest source for the minhag of making a bar mitzvah repast.
In this connection, when Rav Yonasan Eibshitz became bar mitzvah, he was asked how he had managed to escape the wiles of the yeitzer hora until now when he had no yeitzer tov. He replied that halachah forbids a dayan from listening to a plaintiff’s arguments until the opposing party is also present (Choshen Mishpot 17:5). How could he listen to the yeitzer hora if the yeitzer tov was not yet present?
The Zohar (Mishpotim, vol. 2, 106:2) adds that when a person reaches thirteen he also receives a supernal neshomah as well as two guardian angels, one at his right side and one at his left. Another Zohar (vol. 2 page 98b) adds that a person is called a son of the Holy One from this time onwards.
A person reaches an adult level of intelligence at his bar mitzvah. Chazal (Yuma 43a) say that a minor has no da’as and throughout Shas, we find that this lack of mature intelligence prevents him from doing anything that requires it, such as writing a divorce document (Gittin 22b), except under the close supervision of an adult, or giving testimony in beis din.
The Mogen Avrohom (199:7) adds that a minor is also not responsible for other Jews’ sins until his bar mitzvah, because the Gemara (Sotah 37b) says that the covenants which made all Jews responsible for one another were made with the 603,550 Jews in the desert who were above twenty, but not with their younger children. In this connection, the Chiddushei Horim once commented at a bar mitzvah that he was relieved that the responsibility for Klal Yisroel was now being shared by yet another Jew.
CELEBRATING THE BAR MITZVAH
All poskim unanimously regard the bar mitzvah repast as a seudas mitzvah. The Torah itself hints at the seudah at the weaning of Yitzchok. The Zohar Chodosh (Bereishis 14a) relates that Rabi Shimon bar Yochai invited talmidei chachomim to attend his son Rabi Elozor’s bar mitzvah repast, which was akin to a wedding celebration. Rabi Shimon bar Yochai rejoiced exceedingly there, saying that his son was now receiving a holy neshomah hewed from beneath the throne of the King. The guests witnessed fiery wings bringing down the neshomah and surrounding father and son.
Unlike the Zohar, the Maharshal (Bava Kama 98a) explains that the bar mitzvah repast is celebrated due to the joy of a Jew becoming obligated to fulfill mitzvos, deriving this from a Gemara.
“The bar mitzvah meal which the Ashkenazim make, apparently you have no greater seudas mitzvah than this, and its name proves it,” he writes. “And they make a simcha and give praise and gratitude to Hashem that the boy merited to become bar mitzvah. [For] ‘great is the one who is commanded and does [a mitzvah]’ (Kiddushin 31a), and the father has the merit that he raised him until now to completely enter into the covenant of the Torah.
“And clear proof of this is at the end of the first chapter of Kiddushin (31a) where [the blind] Rav Yosef says at the end, ‘Now that Rabi Chanina said: Great is the one who is commanded and does, etc., if someone tells me that halachah is not like Rabi Yehuda who said that a blind person is exempt from the mitzvos, I would make a yom tov (repast) for the rabbonon.‘
“Even though he was already obligated [despite not knowing the halachah], he now wanted to make a repast for the tiding which had not been known to him. All the more so when the time [of a bar mitzvah] arrives, it is fitting to make a banquet.”
The Maharshal goes on to say that the repast is not necessarily a seudas mitzvah if the boy has not yet reached physical maturity as defined by halachah. But even in such a case, the repast is considered a seudas mitzvah if the boy says over a devar Torah.
Maseches Sofrim (18:7) mentions yet another bar mitzvah custom: In Yerushalayim, every child was taken to the elders of the city shortly before becoming obligated in mitzvos, “in order to bless him and strengthen him and daven for him to merit Torah and good deeds.”
READING THE TORAH
A major part of every bar mitzvah is being called up to krias hatorah to demonstrate that the boy is now a fully-fledged member of the Jewish people. Receiving an aliyah became part of the bar mitzvah itinerary in the time of the Geonim and gained such importance that all people with a right to an aliyah were pushed aside by the bar mitzvah boy except for a bridegroom.
In many kehillos, one of the duties of the community chazzan was to teach bar mitzvah youths the portion they would read in shul. The Hamburg-Altona kehillah stipulated in 1726 that the bar mitzvah boy was only allowed to read if he was first taught by the chazzan, who received five marks for his services. A similar decree existed in The Hague, with the provision that if the bar mitzvah was taught by someone else, the chazzan must test him.
In The Hague, there were no limitations to how much of the parshah a bar mitzvah boy was allowed to read. Other places limited what they read due to fear that they might make mistakes. A 1640 rule of Hamburg-Altona allowed the boy to read only one aliyah from the parshah, and even this was conditional on a letter from the chazzan testifying that he knew how to read the entire Torah with its trop.
WHY BAR MITZVAH AND NOT BEN MITZVAH?
The transition to maturity is called bar mitzvah because this is the term used in Sanhedrin (84b) when mentioning adults. If the Torah mentioned the punishment for murder only concerning a man (ish), the Gemara says, I would have thought that “a man who is bar mitzvah” is regarded as a murderer, but a minor not.
The Rishonim used the expression bar mitzvah so often when speaking of a boy becoming thirteen that it became part of every Jew’s lexicon.
The Chiddushei Horim (Otzar Yad Hachaim 637) asked why we call a 13-year-old a bar-mitzvah, whereas a sinner is called a ba’al aveirah (owner of sin). He answered that a mitzvah belongs to one eternally just as a boy always remains his father’s son. But sins can be gotten rid of through teshuvah, just as one can always sell an unwanted item.
(Sources include: Ol Torah Umitzvos, Kollel Mishkon Chaviv; Kollel Damesek Eliezer, Pardes Eliezer, Mechon Damesek Eliezer 2008, Brooklyn, New York)