Bar Mitzvah literally translates as "son of commandment." The word "bar" means "son" in Aramaic, which was the commonly spoken vernacular language of the Jewish people (and much of the Middle East) from around 500 B.C.E. to 400 C.E. The word "mitzvah" is Hebrew for "commandment." The term "bar mitzvah" refers to two things: it is used to describe a boy when he comes of age at 13-years-old and also refers to the religious ceremony that accompanies a boy becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Often a celebratory party will follow the ceremony and that party is also called a bar mitzvah.
This article discusses what it means for a Jewish boy to "become a Bar Mitzvah." For information about the Bar Mitzvah ceremony or celebration please read: "What Is a Bar Mitzvah?"
Becoming a Bar Mitzvah: Rights and Responsibilities
When a Jewish boy turns 13-years-old he becomes a "bar mitzvah," whether or not the event is marked with a ceremony or celebration. According to Jewish custom this means that he is considered old enough to have certain rights and responsibilities. These include:
- Performing Mitzvot: Jewish children are not required to perform mitzvot (plural for mitzvah, meaning "commandments"). While they are encouraged fulfill as many mitzvot as possible, the commandments are not obligatory until a boy becomes bar mitzvah. In traditional Jewish practice, a boy who has become bar mitzvah must observe mitzvot just like any adult. These include, but are not limited to, mitzvot such as wearing teffilin, fasting on Yom Kippur and performing acts of tzedakah (charity).
- Ethical Responsibility: While not all Jews observe mitzvot, all Jews do recognize that when a boy becomes bar mitzvah he has reached the age of moral and ethical accountability.
- Religious Services: A bar mitzvah has the right to participate in leading a religious service and also counts in a minyan. (A minyan is a gathering of at least ten men of bar mitzvah age or older. It is required to perform a full prayer service. Women of bat mitzvah age or older also count in some branches of Judaism).
- Legal Rights: According to traditional Jewish law, a boy who has become bar mitzvah can sign a contract and testify in a court proceeding.
- Marriage: In traditional Jewish law, a boy can technically be married when he becomes a bar Mitzvah. However, both ancient and modern sources recommend 16 to 18-years-old as the earliest point when a boy should be married.
Becoming "A Man"
Many Jews talk about becoming a bar mitzvah as "becoming a man," but this is not correct. A Jewish boy who has become a bar mitzvah has many of the rights and responsibilities of a Jewish adult (see above), but he is not considered an adult in the full sense of the word yet. Jewish tradition makes this abundantly clear. For instance, in Mishnah Avot 5:21 13-years-old is listed as the age of responsibility for the mitzvot, but the age for marriage is set at 18-years-old and the age for earning a living at 20-years-old. Hence, a bar mitzvah is not a full-fledged adult yet, but Jewish tradition recognizes this age as the point when a child can differentiate between right and wrong and hence can be held accountable for his actions.
One way to think about becoming bar mitzvah in Jewish culture is to think about the way secular culture treats teens and children differently. A teenager below the age of 18 does not have all of the legal rights and responsibilities of a full adult, but he is treated differently than younger children. For instance, in most U.S. states children can legally work part-time once they are 14-years-old. Similarly, in many states children younger than 18 can marry with special parental and/or judicial consent. Children in their teens can also be treated as adults in criminal proceedings depending on the circumstance of the crime.