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)
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.
The synagogue or congregation usually makes a presentation of a Bible or religious item such as an engraved Kiddush cup for a Bar Mitzvah boy or their first pair of Sabbath candlesticks to a Bat Mitzvah girl.
Quite often, a reception or party follows with gifts (often a blessing of money in multiples of 18 which symbolizes the Hebrew word ‘chai’ meaning ‘life’), food and Israeli folk dances to celebrate the joy of this occasion – of becoming a son or daughter of the commandment.
Some Jewish parents go all out and bring their family to Israel to celebrate their child’s Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall. This is a very special time to hold such a significant ceremony in Jerusalem at the site of the ancient Holy Temple!
Messianic Adaptations of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah
For followers of the Messiah Yeshua, to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah may be at times problematic. Traditional synagogues, even conservative or reform, are often unwilling to host a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony for a child from a Messianic Jewish family.
When the time drew near for our middle son to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah, we began to attend services held at his Hebrew School, Talmud Torah, in Canada. When they found out, however, that we believed in Yeshua as the Messiah, they asked us to leave and didn’t allow our son to have his Bat Mitzvah with their fellowship. Therefore we celebrated with friends and family at a public hall but it was still a beautiful and meaningful simcha (joyous occasion).
Our son wore his tallit *(prayer shawl) and chanted his Scripture portion, led the prayers and songs of praise and gave a wonderful ‘drash’ (message on his Torah portion). Often the portion of scripture is taken from their Hebrew birthdate and is considered to have special meaning to the individual's life.
In Israel, as well as in the Diaspora, due to the growing number of Messianic Congregations, it is usually possible to hold the ceremony with other followers of Yeshua – people of like mind and heart. Here, the child can openly declare their faith, as did our youngest son and daughter as well as, most recently, our eldest grandson at a local Messianic congregation in Israel.
The distinctiveness of a Messianic Bar/Bat Mitzvah is that it usually reflects the child’s personal commitment to Yeshua Hamashiach (the Messiah).
At my daughter, Liat’s Bat Mitzvah, one of the most significant moments was when the Ro’eh Kehilla (shepherd of the congregation) along with all the elders came up to impart a blessing upon Liat and speak destiny into her life.
As her mother, I presented Liat with a ‘True Love Waits’ pendant, along with prayers that with God’s help she will maintain her purity and innocence until she enters into a holy marriage covenant under the chuppah (traditional covering over a bride and groom at a Jewish wedding).
It was beautiful to see her sing worship songs in Hebrew to Adonai along with her friends from her class at the Messianic Believers school, Makor Hatikvah, in Jerusalem.
More and more non-Jewish followers of Yeshua are recognizing the power of blessing and wanting to hold a Bar/Bat Mitzvah for their child as well. Each person and family can individualize their own Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony but these are significant elements that are important to include:
- worship songs
- Personal declaration of faith in Messiah Yeshua
- Scripture readings including Torah, Prophets and Brit Hadashah (New Covenant)
- Commentary on the Scripture portion
- Impartation of Blessing on the child
- Closing prayers and songs of praise and thanksgiving
- Celebration as part of the community of the Body of Messiah (with lots of food!)
Although to some Jewish people today this is just a ceremony or ritual to be performed (or a party to enjoy & to receive gifts), to others it holds great meaning and spiritual significance.
Please pray for Bar/Bat Mitzvah youth in Israel and all over the world that this ceremony will truly be an initiation into a lifetime of following God and His commandments; and that they will come to a saving knowledge of the Jewish Messiah Yeshua.
As followers of Yeshua, we are each sons and daughters of the living God. As we grow to maturity in our faith, may we be living examples of people who keep His commandments and live in His grace.
"Blessed are those who do his commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter in by the gates into the city." (Revelation 22:14)
About the Author:
Hannah Nesher grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home and received her education in a religious Hebrew school in Canada. During a crisis pregnancy, she came to know Jesus (Yeshua) as her Messiah and Savior.
She now lives in Israel with her children and grandchildren, teaching Christians about the Jewish roots of their faith.
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Barren Women: Daughters of Zion (Bat Tziyon) Women of Hope Conference, Galilee, Israel