Note about language: ‘bar mitzvah’ means “son of the commandment”; ‘bat mitzvah’ means “daughter of the commandment.” B’nei mitzvah is the plural form and is also used as gender inclusive and nonbinary. B-mitzvah can also be used as gender inclusive and nonbinary.
This winter, I’m excited to officiate b’nei mitzvah ceremonies for Jonathan Hill and Alex Klarman that were postponed due to COVID-19. Working with two teens who are a little bit older than thirteen, I found myself wondering why are b’nei mitzvah ceremonies typically held at thirteen?
For a people whose history spans three thousand years, b’nei mitzvah is a relatively new ceremony. Until the middle ages, young children regularly participated in rituals like leading prayer, reading Torah, and fasting on Yom Kippur. Rabbinic attitudes towards children’s ritual leadership changed over time and children were prohibited from certain practices until adulthood, which the Talmud defines as thirteen for boys. Bar mitzvah ceremonies were created as special celebrations around boys reading Torah and wearing tefillin for the first time on their thirteenth birthday and became widespread in the 17th century.
COVID times have been incredibly challenging for families preparing for b’nei mitzvah. As families navigated uncertainty and moved beyond thirteenth birthdays, the values surrounding b’nei mitzvah became more prominent. B’nei mitzvah is not a significant birthday celebration, rather a celebration of Jewish life, learning, connection to the community, and living life as a mensch.
Last month, former House Representative Gabrielle Giffords became a bat mitzvah at age 51. Giffords had begun to explore her Jewish ancestry in the early 2000 with her local Tucson rabbi. Despite limitations from the gunshot wound she survived in 2011, she continued her Jewish studies. But she needed the support of a learning community to help her achieve becoming bat mitzvah; Giffords recruited two friends to be a part of an adult b’nei mitzvah class.
B’nei mitzvah can be a meaningful experience beyond thirteen. We hope to begin an adult b’nei mitzvah class in the spring of 2022, with a ceremony taking place in spring/summer 2023. The experience will be an opportunity to engage in deep Jewish learning, be a part of a learning community, and participate in a b’nei mitzvah ceremony at Temple Beth Or. This course is not limited to first time Torah readers. If you had a bar, bat, or b’nei mitzvah at an earlier age, you are welcome to participate and “renew your covenant.”
Please join me for an informational session on Tuesday, January 25 at 7:00 pm over Zoom.
Mazel tov to Jonathan, Alex, and Gabby Giffords too.
Rabbi Rachel Kort