Mitzvah literally means “commandment.” There are many mitzvot of conduct and observance in Jewish tradition. B’nai means “children of” in ancient Aramaic, but in this context means “responsible for.” At age 13, a child becomes traditionally responsible to carry on a life guided by Jewish values and principles. However, fulfilling this role doesn’t happen all at once. Intellectual and spiritual maturity is a long, involved process, which takes time and experience. B’nai Mitzvah is merely the symbolic beginning of this evolution.
Ancient rabbinical sources state that it was at age 13 that children began to acquire the faculty for sound reasoning and good judgment, as well as their ability to control their desires. It was at this age, according to the Midrash, a commentary on the Bible, that Abraham rejected the idols of his parents. It was also at age 13 that Jacob and Esau went their separate ways — Jacob to study Torah, Esau to worship idols. Current psychologists agree that at puberty, young people begin not only to understand themselves better, but also to understand what is expected of them by society.
No doubt it is the family that feels the intensity of a B’nai Mitzvah most of all, and at Temple Beth El we try to involve family members (including non-Jewish family members) in the service in a number of ways. But the event is also a community celebration as well, which is why at TBE we emphasize the communal aspect of the event. After all, the child is now announcing in a public forum, before their friends and neighbors, that they intend to carry on the traditions that we all hold dear. If this isn’t a cause for all to celebrate, then what is?
Most important, of course, is the guest of honor. Through the student’s active participation in the service and through the B’nai Mitzvah booklet that the student prepares, we all get to know this young adult as an individual with unique and special qualities all their own. Students are also expected to complete a Mitzvah Project.
* In our effort at TBE to use gender-affirming, inclusive language, we have chosen to use the more neutral term, B’nai Mitzvah, as the ceremony name, rather than Bar or Bat Mitzvah. We realize that B’nai Mitzvah is the plural masculine form, but because in Hebrew mixed-gender groups default to male language, it is still somewhat ambiguous.
Photo by Geoffrey Tischman Photography