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January 24, 2006

The Christian Bar Mitzvah?

by Jon M. Sweeney

Bar mitzvah literally means “son of the commandment” in Hebrew, and bat (pronounced like jot) mitzvah is “daughter of the commandment.” In Jewish tradition, these terms refer to a child who has come of age, which is why you often hear it said: “He is becoming a bar mitzvah.” It is a state of being, not an event.

Jewish law states that a child is not obligated to comprehend or even to adhere to the commandments until he or she turns thirteen, or “comes of age.” While many adults may wish that they had never reached this age of accountability (!), the average child delights in being considered an equal in the eyes of his or her elders.

There are obligations that go along with becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. One is entitled and expected to participate or even lead religious services, to count toward the required number of people for a minyan (prayer group), and to actively keep the commandments. This coming of age does not entitle a thirteen year old to wed and it does not lay any expectations on the young person to earn a living. The Talmud makes clear that those things are more appropriately laid upon eighteen and twenty year olds, respectively.

The bar or bat mitzvah is usually commemorated in the synagogue with a special ceremony during which the young person must recite a passage from the Torah and give a short speech. The speech will usually begin with “Today, I am a man…” or “Today, I am a woman.” (In Orthodox and Hasidic movements, however, women are never permitted to fully participate or lead religious services. Bat mitzvah ceremonies only occur in synagogues that are members of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements.)

Most intriguing to the average Jewish teenager is the party that follows the ceremony. Earlier than a “Sweet Sixteen” party, but with some of the same implications, this is a time to celebrate the growth and maturity of a young person. And for the teenager, it is a time to receive lots of gifts.

Christian kids are oftentimes invited to their friends’ bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, and, not surprisingly, many of these kids want their parents to throw similar parties for them. A thirteenth birthday party for a Christian teenager can resemble a bar/bat mitzvah, with hired music, catering, obligatory gift-giving that goes beyond the usual fare for younger children, and speeches.

But Christians need to be careful about adopting Jewish ceremonies toward Christian ends. Jewish reactions to Christian versions of the bar/bat mitzvahs range from the sort of pride that comes from being imitated, to resentment that yet another aspect of their ancient faith has been co-opted. For Jewish teenagers, the meaning of the bar/bat mitzvah is clear: Learn the history of the Jewish people; study Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people; study Torah, the scriptures given by God to the Jewish people; and do good deeds in the world (tikkun olam) by taking responsibility for your actions as any person “of age” must do.

Christian kids turning thirteen could learn a lot from the bar/bat mitzvah—lessons far more important than how to throw a party.

Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including THE ST. FRANCIS PRAYER BOOK.

More by Jon M. Sweeney.

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