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  • By Hannah Nesher

Bar/Bat Mitzvah - Coming of Age

Bar/Bat Mitzvah

By Hannah Nesher www.voiceforisrael.net

A coming of age ceremony, called a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, is one of the best known customs of the Jewish people. As the Hebrew/Aramaic name implies, (Bar means son, Bat means daughter and mitzvah means commandment), this is a very important milestone in the life of a Jewish child.

It is a time when the child assumes responsibility for his or her own faith in God at what is considered the Biblical age of responsibility – twelve for a girl and thirteen for a boy. The child crosses over from being a child into an adolescent.

New Testament Relevance

"And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast." (Luke 2:42)

It was when Yeshua ‘came of age’ at twelve years old that he said, “I must be about my Father’s business.” (Luke 2:49)

Yeshua’s parents, Yosef and Miriam thought he was lost when they returned by caravan to their hometown of Natzeret, from their Passover visit to Jerusalem. When they tracked him down, however, they found Yeshua, where any ‘good Jewish Bar Mitzvah boy’ would likely be – in the Temple conversing with the Rabbis and scholars.

This particular student, however, amazed the rabbis with his wisdom and knowledge of drashah (teaching). Surely this was no ordinary Bar Mitzvah boy – he would grow to become the Messiah!

" And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers." (Luke 2: 46-47).

The fact that this is the only recorded event of Yeshua’s childhood demonstrates how important this was to the New Testament writers!

Yeshua is the perfect example for what a Bar Mitzvah should ideally be about:

"Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." (Hebrews 5:8-9)

He became a perfect son of his Father’s commandments (Bar Mitzvah). Isn’t this the cry of every godly mother and father’s heart for their sons and daughters – that they would receive the word of God and be obedient to His commandments?

My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you,

So that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding;

Yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding,

If you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures;

Then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1-5)

Historical Background

Because there is no specific Scriptural reference to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, its historical background is more difficult to trace. However, from the ancient writings of the Rabbis, we learn that they considered the age of 12 or 13 to be the age of accountability and physical maturity.

The child is now expected to assume more duties and responsibilities of religious life such as celebrating the feasts of the Lord, fasting on fast days, and wearing a prayer shawl in the synagogue. Before this time, the parents would generally assume all responsibility for the child’s actions, vows, discipline and religious training. However, this begins to transition to the child at this time, which is marked by a special ceremony.

This ceremony did not become commonplace until the Middle Ages, as an official initiation for boys into adolescence and Jewish religious duties. By the age of 13, a Jewish boy would usually have completed his early Hebrew and religious studies.

A similar ceremony for girls at the age of 12 (based on the assumption that girls mature slightly sooner than boys), the Bat Mitzvah, is a modern adaptation to give girls a similar honor and blessing as their male counterparts.

Traditional Jewish Observance

Preparing for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah takes considerable time, cost, and effort on behalf of the parents as well as the child. Most Jewish children spend several years in synagogue and Hebrew school studies, preparing for this ceremony.

Some even hire a private teacher with whom the child meets weekly for up to a year or more for the specific purpose of learning to chant their ‘haftorah’ (Prophetic portion of Scripture), prayers and blessings.

The ceremony itself is both beautiful and significant as the child leads a portion of the synagogue service. Hebrew prayers may include the traditional Sh’ma (Hear O Israel… from Deuteronomy 6:4), the Amidah (18 benedictions), Adon Olam (Lord of the Universe) and various Psalms.

She or he then chants the reading in beautiful traditional Jewish melodies, the weekly reading from the Torah and Prophets (Parashah and Haftorah) that is close to their 12th or 13th birthdays. These musical notes that accompany the reading is called the cantillation. These melodies are believed to date all the way back to the time of Moses!

The Bar Mitzvah boy is also given a very special honor. Just before reading the Scriptures, the cantor (worship leader) or father opens the ark containing the Torah scrolls and places it in the arms of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child.

As blessings are chanted, the child leads a holy processional down the aisles of the synagogue while holding the Torah scroll. It is common practice for people to show their reverence for the Word of God by reaching out to the scroll and touching its mantle with their tallit (prayer shawl) or siddur (prayer book).

After the Scripture reading or chanting, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child gives their own ‘drash’ (commentary on the Word), usually followed by a speech during which they thank family and friends. It can be an incredibly moving and inspiring experience to hear often deep and spiritual insights from a young teenager.