The Meaning of Bar Mitzvah

     The phrase "Bar Mitzvah" literally means "son of the commandment" (Bat Mitzvah means "daughter of the commandment"). It is known today as a right-of-passage event in which the child around the age of 13 performs a religious service in the temple (during which he/she receives a Tallit [prayer shawl]), followed by a party for family and friends.

     According to the Mishnah, the book of Jewish laws put together about 200 C.E., every Jew is Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah, in modern gender-egalitarian perspective) simply by attaining the age of 13. The assumption was that the the child had learned enough to be responsible for having good behavior and following religious laws. Reading the Torah was something the child gradually learned to do, and there was no particular age at which this was done publically.

     In the Middle Ages it became the custom that boys under 13 could not read the Torah at services. Once he reached 13 and could show he understood the meaning of the words, he was given this privilege. This reading of the Torah, as well as a Haftarah reading and large portions of the prayer service, constituted the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

     After the ceremony, the boy's family and friends went to his home for a feast. At this party, the new Bar Mitzvah gave a speech in which he showed that he really understood the Torah portion he had read, and was a proper Bar Mitzvah. Today, the D'var Torah speech is given during the synagogue service, and the party afterward is just for fun. Beginning in the 20th century, Reform and Conservative Jews began an identical ceremony for girls who became Bat Mitzvah.

     Being a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not something that lasts a day -- it is a condition of life. Many Jews, due to various circumstances, are not able to have a formal Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony or party when they turn 13, but as practicing adult Jews, are considered to be Bar or Bat Mitzvah according to Jewish definition.

Torah and Haftarah

     In the Jewish understanding, the Bible (known as "Old Testament" to Christians) consists of "Torah" (the first five books, i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), "Neve'im" ("Prophets", such as Ezekiel, Isaiah, Amos), and "Ketuvim" ("Writings", such as the books of Proverbs, Song of Songs, or Esther). Torah forms the basis of the Jewish faith. The Torah is hand-written in the original Hebrew on parchment scrolls, and is read weekly at Sabbath services in a 52-part cycle throughout the year. As soon as the last portion of Deuteronomy is read, we immediately return to Genesis, Chapter 1 and start the cycle again. Traditionally, a Haftarah portion from another book of the Bible (usually from one of the Prophets) is scheduled to be read after the Torah portion, although Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazic Jews differ on which Haftarah section is associated with the scheduled Torah portion.

     Benjamin's Torah portion is Leviticus 19, and his Haftarah is Amos 9. His D'var Torah will discuss these passages, as well as some thoughts about the Holocaust, as we are also observing Yom HaShoah, the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust.


Click here to see Benjamin's D'var Torah essay.