Age of Responsibility
"At thirteen a boy becomes obliged to observe the commandments"
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
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
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:
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.
may lead the services.
may read from the Torah at the public reading in the synagogue.
may engage in most business and monetary transactions as a full adult.
may marry and divorce.
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
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
old foolish king and the poor wise boy
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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:).
kind of party?
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.
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
is customary for the new Bar Mitzva to deliver a speech at the celebration.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.