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Age of Responsibility

"At thirteen a boy becomes obliged to observe the commandments" (Avot 5:21)

Being Barmitzva is not just a one-time event. Barmitzva is for life!

At the age of thirteen Jewish males enter a life-long obligation to observe the 613 commandments ("mitzvot") of the Torah.

The Hebrew word for "commandment" is Mitzva. The word Bar means "son" in Aramaic (which was once the everyday language of the Jews). Literally translated, Bar Mitzva means "son of the commandment". This phrase applies to every Jewish male on becoming thirteen years old. In Torah law this is when adult responsibility begins. From this time and for the rest of his life, he is and remains Bar Mitzva, "son of the commandment", subject to all the laws of the Torah as they apply to men.

Similarly, at the age of 12 a Jewish female becomes Bat Mitzva, "daughter of the Mitzva", meaning she is subject to all the laws of the Torah as they apply to women.

It is part of the oral Torah tradition (Halachah leMoshe MiSinai) that 13 and 12 are the ages of responsibility for boys and girls (Rosh, Responsa Klal 16 Siman 1).

In the written Torah -- the Hebrew Bible -- the earliest age at which someone is called Ish, "a man", is thirteen. "And the two sons of Jacob, Shimon and Levy, took each one (Ish) his sword" (Genesis 34:25). Biblical chronology shows that Levy was thirteen years old at the time of this episode (Tosfot Yom Tov on Avot 5:21).

The Talmud (Niddah 45b) states that a male becomes an Ish, an "adult man", when he attains the age of "thirteen years and one day". This is on his thirteenth birthday, which arrives after thirteen complete years from the day of his birth and is actually the first day of his fourteenth year. (Rambam, Laws of Yom Kippur 2:11; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 55:9).

In Torah law, becoming a responsible adult depends not only on reaching the relevant age but also on showing the first signs of puberty – at least two pubic hairs in the genital area. It can normally be presumed that a boy has some pubic hair by the age of thirteen.

It is no coincidence that in the Torah the age of adult responsibility begins with the onset of puberty. This is when a boy becomes physically able to father a child – no small responsibility. Being thirteen and capable of fathering children qualifies a Jewish male to be a full adult member of the People of Israel, with all the accompanying obligations and privileges.

Privileges and obligations

It is a supreme privilege to be a member of the People of Israel, chosen by God to be a light to all the nations. The Children of Israel have life in this world. We then go on to live eternally in the "World to Come", where our souls go when death brings our earthly lives to an end.

The gift of eternal life is such a privilege that it involves obligations. These are the Mitzvot, the rules and observances of the Torah. It is by carrying them out, sometimes with great effort, that we earn the good we receive in the World to Come.

The Mitzvot include many laws that are obviously for the benefit of the entire world, such as to pursue justice and kindness, not to murder or steal as well as numerous other vital institutions. The mitzvot also include practices that make it possible for man to attain connection with God, sometimes in ways that defy reason and logic.

Among the privileges of a 13 year old male under Torah law:

  1. He can be counted in as one of the minimum number (Minyan) of adult Jewish males required for the main public prayers, at which time God's Presence (Shechinah) actually dwells with the participants.
  2. He may lead the services.
  3. He may read from the Torah at the public reading in the synagogue.
  4. He may engage in most business and monetary transactions as a full adult.
  5. He may marry and divorce.
  6. He can give testimony as a witness in even the most serious cases.

A thirteen year old has these privileges because he is considered old enough to act responsibly in life. Someone who takes responsibility deserves a reward if he willfully chooses to do good. He must also know that if he willfully chooses to do evil he is liable to suffer the penalty.

Under Torah law a thirteen year old is liable to the same punishments as any other adult for willful violation of the commandments of the Torah. The penalties include death for some of the worst crimes, flogging, fines and other sanctions.

The penalties are serious because the Mitzvot are so important. Not only do they affect us. They have an influence on the entire universe. Tradition teaches that God set things up in such a way that each mitzva has the power to affect the whole creation in ways far beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend. Mitzvot carried out by a thirteen year old have as much power as those of people much older.

The Great Day

The actual day you enter this privileged status, your thirteenth birthday, is certainly one to celebrate happily so as to shine blessing into your entire adult life.

According to tradition, the day a boy becomes Barmitzva, the holy soul (Neshama) enters into him. From the time of birth until now his vitality came from the Nefesh, the "lower" part of the soul, source of everyday physical and mental life. From his thirteenth birthday onwards the Neshama enables the young man to deepen his understanding and grow spiritually.

It is the arrival of the Neshama that makes the thirteenth birthday so auspicious and a time of joy and celebration.

For the new Bar Mitzva, the thirteenth birthday is his personal day of receiving the Torah. On that day and for the ensuing days of joy and celebration, the Bar Mitzva is the shining Chatan Torah, Bridegroom of the Torah.

This birthday is thus a supreme Yom Tov, a "Good Day" or Festival for the boy, his parents and dear ones. It should certainly be celebrated as such.

The old foolish king and the poor wise boy

"Better a poor wise boy than an old foolish king who doesn't know any more how to take care." (Ecclesiastes 4:13)

The wise King Solomon called the bad inclination "an old foolish king". It is "old" because it is in the person from birth, "king" because it rules over his entire body, and "foolish" because it makes him do all kinds of things that are truly foolish and self-destructive.

King Solomon called the good inclination a "poor wise boy". It is a "boy" because the good inclination is young compared to the evil inclination. The good inclination comes from the holy soul, which does not enter until the age of thirteen. By that time the "old foolish king" is already well established. The good inclination is "poor" because the person doesn't listen to his good inclination the way he does to his bad inclination. Being "wise", the good inclination prompts the person to do the right thing all his life, thus earning his eternal reward. By focusing on the good, the "poor wise boy" overcomes the "foolish old king" (Rashi on Ecclesiastes 4:13).

At what exact moment do you become Bar Mitzva?

The Jewish and not the secular calendar determines the date of the thirteenth birthday, which is when the privileges and obligations of the Bar Mitzva actually begin. This may not be the same as the birthday according to the secular calendar and need not necessarily be the day of the main Barmitzva celebration.

Does a boy only become Bar Mitzva after thirteen complete years to the minute have elapsed since his time of birth? That would mean that a boy born at 5:00 p.m. on 1st Nissan would not technically be Bar Mitzva until 5:00 p.m. on 1st Nissan thirteen years later.

According to most authorities this is not the case. They consider the moment of becoming Bar Mitzva to be not at the same time of day as when the birth took place but rather at the beginning of the day of the Hebrew birthday. In the Torah view, the day begins at nightfall. The actual moment of becoming Bar Mitzva is thus at nightfall on the eve of the Hebrew birthday.

Shehecheyanu -- "He gave us life"

It is good for the Bar Mitzva to dress in new clothes that evening in honor of the newly arrived Neshamah. After putting on his new clothes he can recite the customary Brachah, the blessing of thanksgiving over something new and special:

"Blessed are You, HaShem our God, King of the Universe who has given us life and kept us and brought us to this time."

As you say the Brachah, have in mind that these very words are your expression of thanks to God for keeping you alive from the day of your birth and bringing you to the moment when you can keep all His Mitzvot.

Before the age of thirteen, all the Mitzvot the child performs are essentially "training" for adulthood. From now on all the Mitzvot you do are "for real".

Leading the Prayers

Since the great day begins at nightfall, the first Mitzva of the day is the evening recital of Shema: "Hear, Israel, HaShem Our God HaShem is One!" With this Mitzva we accept God as our King and commit ourselves to carrying out all His commandments. (The evening recital of Shema also has pride of place in the Talmud, which opens with a discussion of this Mitzva – Berachot 2a).

The Bar Mitzva is now eligible to be counted as one of the Minyan of adult Jewish males required for communal prayer, and may also lead services. When the Bar Mitzva knows how to lead the prayers some have the custom of calling him to do so for this first evening service to affirm his new adult status in the eyes of the community.

Tefilin

For one who becomes Bar Mitzva on a weekday, after getting up in the morning the first great Mitzvot of the day are to put on the badges of honor of the Jewish adult male: the Tzitzit, the fringes on a special four-cornered garment, and the Tefilin, black leather capsules containing the Shema and three other scriptural passages handwritten on parchment. These are bound with leather straps to the upper arm and the head. We symbolically bind ourselves to the service of God, Who frees man from all lower forms of servitude.

Even young boys may wear Tzitzit whether in the form of the Tallit Katan or Tallit Gadol (prayer shawl) according to custom. But Tefilin are not worn by boys below the age of Barmitzva. This is because the great holiness of the Tefilin requires that they may be worn only when the body is clean. Young boys are not always able to keep themselves sufficiently clean.

Thus for the Bar Mitzva, putting on the Tefilin (and a new Tallit where this is the custom) is another proud sign of adulthood.

Binding the Tefilin to the arm and head does take practice. It is desirable for a boy preparing for his barmitzva to start learning how to bind the Tefilin a couple of months prior to the Barmitzva. Some have the custom of commencing wearing Tefilin for weekday morning services one month prior to the Barmitzva.

On the barmitzva day itself, putting on the Tefilin is one of the climaxes. As the Bar Mitzva recites the blessings over the Tefilin and binds himself in this ancient ritual together with his father, adult male relatives and friends and others in the synagogue, he becomes bound to the timeless community of the souls of Israel.

Reading the Torah

The public reading of the Torah during the Sabbath, Monday and Thursday morning synagogue service is by ancient Jewish tradition performed by one or more readers in the presence of a Minyan of at least ten free adult male Jews.

Calling the new Bar Mitzva to read from the Torah on or as soon as possible after the day of the Bar Mitzva is thus a public sign of his entry into the community as an adult male.

Reading from the Torah is also a ceremony of personally receiving the Torah from God in the presence of the community. Before and after his Torah portion, the new Bar Mitzva recites the traditional blessings thanking God for the gift of the Torah.

Reading from the Torah is rightly seen as the highlight of the religious aspects of the Bar Mitzva celebration, because reading and studying the Torah is really the essence of what being Bar Mitzva is all about. Without studying what the Torah says about the Mitzvot it is impossible to carry them out.

Many Jewish boys practice for months in advance of their Barmitzva in order to be able to recite the blessings and read from the Torah in the synagogue. Where the boy has little or no knowledge of Torah and its teachings, learning to read from the Torah should be supplemented with study of other aspects of the tradition, in particular those relating to regular practice.

Making a commitment

Take some quiet moments on the day of the Barmitzva to offer your own personal prayers to God, expressing what you most deeply long for and asking for success in all you do.

Think carefully: Is there is one specific commitment you feel able and willing to make to God to try to improve yourself in some area of your life.

In some communities it is customary on the day of the Barmitzva for the boy to read the list of the Six Hundred and Thirteen Mitzvot as recited on the night of Shavuot, Festival of Giving of the Torah.

Feasting

It is a mitzva for the father to make a festive meal for dear ones and friends on the day his son reaches the age of Barmitzva.

"And Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned" (Genesis 21:8). The Rabbis said: "This was the day Isaac was weaned from his bad inclination (i.e. his Barmitzva)" (Bereishit Rabba 53).

The Zohar tells us that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai made a Barmitzva feast for his son, Rabbi Elazar, sitting together with his companions for three days! (Zohar Chadash Bereishit 11).

R. Pinchas commented on the verse: Go out and look, daughters of Zion, at the crown his mother crowned him on the day of his marriage and on the day of the joy of his heart" (Song of Songs 3:11). "His marriage" is the day he becomes eligible to carry out the commandments of the Torah, a day of joy for the righteous. When does he become eligible? Rabbi Yitzchak said: From thirteen years upwards. On that day the righteous must celebrate and rejoice in their hearts just as on the day one goes under the marriage canopy. The merit of this festive celebration stirs the Holy One, who calls before them in joy: Go out and look, daughters of Zion, at the crown his mother crowned him on the day of his marriage and on the day of the joy of his heart" (Zohar Hadash 15b:).

What kind of party?

People celebrate becoming Barmitzva in many different ways. It is appropriate to invite dear ones, family and friends. It is a matter of individual choice whether What you and your family do to celebrate your Barmitzva is your choice. It is obviously absurd to celebrate the Barmitzva with anything that is not in line with the true meaning of the Barmitzva.

How you dress, whether you light candles, or have a cake are all matters of personal preference and are not governed by any rules or customs.

The Barmitzva celebration is for the Bar Mitzva himself and for all who take part in it. For the Bar Mitzva, it is a time of happiness at entering the Covenant of Abraham as an adult. For those taking part who are over thirteen, celebrating with the new Bar Mitzva is an opportunity to refresh their joy of commitment to the mitzvot. By adding to the hapiness of the new Bar Mitzva, the guests have the power to strengthen him in his commitment to the path.

"One should endeavor to make a feast for dear ones and friends and invite Torah scholars and have much feasting and joy according to the hand of God upon him for this meal will be a great defense upon Israel…." (Ben Ish Chai Parshat Re'eh 17)

Making a Speech

It is customary for the new Bar Mitzva to deliver a speech at the celebration.

"The reason for this is because at the beginning of his fourteenth year the male attains the level of Neshama, and through the Torah discourse in this meal he will attain a higher level of spirit." (Kaf HaChaim 225:11).

However not every Bar Mitzva boy is capable of making a speech. For this reason, there is a widespread custom that when the boy stands up and starts speaking, friends interrupt by singing loud songs until he is forced to sit down. This way boys who are not able to speak well are spared any embarrassment.

If you really do want to make a speech, make sure you say a word of thanks to God for bringing you to this time, and to your parents and dear ones, teachers and anyone else you feel grateful to. You could speak about your Torah portion, or some subject that is of special importance to you. Many Bar Mitzva's say some words on the subject of Tefilin.

Gifts

The custom of giving the new Bar Mitzva gifts is connected with the Barmitzva speech: it was usual to give someone who delivered a Torah discourse a gift as a token of appreciation.

The gifts given by family and friends to the new Bar Mitzva add to the excitement of the event and help one remember it for a long time afterwards.

Don't only think about the actual physical gifts people give you on your Barmitzva. Remember that the greatest Barmitzva gift is the Torah, which is the gateway to everlasting life. Another most precious gift is that of your health. Make sure you take the best care of it, because good health is one of the soundest foundations for success and happiness in life.

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