What Is The Origin Of Becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

The beginnings of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah are obscure. It is not mentioned in the Torah, nor is there any biblical indication that thirteen was the age one became an adult member of the religious community. Most scholars feel that the association between the age thirteen and mandated religious observance began during the Second Temple period (between 515 BCE and 70 CE). A section of the Babylonian Talmud (the famed collection of Jewish teaching and commentary on Torah law) affirms that “until the thirteenth year, it is the father’s duty to raise his son.” Then, as we are taught in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers,” from the Mishnah, an older text upon which the Talmud is based) states that at age thirteen, a boy is responsible for the mitzvot himself (Pirke Avot 5:42). In other words, a Jewish boy of thirteen years automatically became a Bar Mitzvah without any public ceremony.

While the beginnings of “our” Bar Mitzvah ceremony appeared as early as the 6th century CE, it was not until the Middle Ages that a fully developed ritual emerged. By the 13th or 14th century, the custom of calling a boy up to the Torah was established as the way of recognizing his entry into adulthood. The Bar Mitzvah boy would chant the Torah blessing, all or part of the Torah portion of the week, and/or the Haftarah section from the biblical books of the Prophets. He would often give a scholarly address on the parashah (Torah portion) or some section of the Talmud. Then followed a gala feast, called seudat mitzvah (the mitzvah meal), to which family, friends and sometimes the entire Jewish community would be invited. In short, then, almost all the elements we associate with the modern ceremony of Bar/Bat Mitzvah were present by the Middle Ages.