What is the True Meaning of a “Bar” or “Bat Mitzvah”?

Caroline (Andy's daughter) at her Bat Mitzvah, May 9, 2009.

Like other religions and cultures throughout the world, Judaism has developed a variety of rituals to mark important life cycle moments. One of the most well-known of these rites is the bar or bat mitzvah.

Technically speaking, however, to be a bar (male) or bat (female) mitzvah means one is responsible for the performance of the mitzvot, “commandments.” According to tradition, when children enter puberty they are held accountable for their actions. A Jewish boy becomes a bar mitzvah at age 13 and a girl at 12 years old—with or without a service or celebration (some girls do not have their celebrations until the age of 13).

The initiation ceremony is what is commonly referred to as the bar or bat mitzvah. This usually involves a communal prayer service (often, but not always, on Shabbat) at which the young person may do one or more of the following:

  • Be counted in the minyan (prayer quorum of 10 Jewish adults);
  • Recite the blessing before and after the reading of a section of the Torah (this honor is known as an aliyah);
  • Chant a selection from the weekly Torah portion (parashah) and/or prophetic reading (haftarah) and its accompanying blessings; and,
  • Offer a sermon or teaching connected to the parashah or haftarah readings and the experience of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

Following the service, there is typically a festive meal and many families also host parties.

It is important to remember that while the bar or bat mitzvah service and celebration can be very powerful — and fun — experiences, these events should be viewed as part of a process in which the young person and his/her family explores what it means to be a Jewish adult, and the opportunities and responsibilities that come with it. This is a subject we hope the bar or bat mitzvah continues to actively explore for many years to come.

Please share this with your bar/bat mitzvah child…
“Bar” means “male” and “bat” means “female”. “Mitzvah” means one is responsible for performing the “mitzvot” or “commandments.” After your bar/bat mitzvah you will be seen as an adult, responsible for all of your actions.