Bat Mitzvah/Bat Chayil
The term Bat Mitzvah means “daughter of the commandments”. It refers to a girl’s coming to maturity in terms of Jewish law, which according to the Talmud is when she reaches her twelfth Hebrew birthday. Boys, of course, do not reach halachic adulthood until they turn 13. The disparity in age serves to highlight the different roles accorded to men and women in Judaism. The Talmud recognises that not only do girls grow up earlier from a physical point of view, but from an emotional one as well. They are considered to be able to handle the responsibility that comes with maturity from a more tender age.
Bat Mitzvah celebrations have not always been a widespread phenomenon within Orthodox Jewish circles. There is no longstanding historical connection with any form of ceremony or party; the term Bat Mitzvah simply referred to the automatic conferring of adult status upon a young woman. It was only during the 19th century that it gradually became the practice for Jewish families to hold special feasts in their home to mark their daughters’ twelfth birthdays. In pre-independence “Palestine”, marking a Bat Mitzvah was practically unheard of until the 1948 war of Independence, when those celebrating important events such as a Brit, Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah received extra rations of staples like eggs, oil and sugar.
There are no hard and fast guidelines to be followed for a girl’s coming of age ceremony. As a result, the ways in which a Bat Mitzvah is marked vary from community to community and synagogue to synagogue.
A Bat Mitzvah ceremony is usually held for individual girls on a date close to their own twelfth Hebrew birthday. In the weeks preceding the big day, a member of the Bat Mitzvah girl’s community helps her to prepare a D’var Torah (talk) to mark the occasion. This is sometimes given in the synagogue, after Kiddush on a Shabbat morning; after Mincha or Ma’ariv on motzei (end of) Shabbat; or on a Sunday. The D’var Torah can also be delivered in a communal hall, or as part of a smaller, more family-oriented celebration at home.
A Bat Chayil ceremony, on the other hand, is usually held for a group of girls in their thirteenth year, after having completed a Bat Chayil course. The service takes place in the synagogue on a Sunday afternoon, or occasionally during havdalah at the end of Shabbat.
It usually consists of a few familiar tefillin (prayers), readings by the Bat Chayil graduates, a special prayer for their future success and a presentation. But thanks to work and projects completed by the girls during their course being on prominent display, the focus rests firmly on the educational process rather than the ceremonial occasion. This serves to highlight the importance of a continuing Jewish education – Bat Chayil should mark a girl’s achievement to date, rather than the end of the journey for her.
On the ceremonial side of things, there is a tradition that a Bat Mitzvah girl joins in the baking of challah for the first time in honour of her coming of age. The ritual of “taking challah” (removing an olive-sized piece of dough from a batch weighing over a certain amount, making a blessing and burning or disposing of it) is an example of one of the special mitzvot reserved for women that she is now able to fulfil. A bat chayil course will also usually include a project on “The Jewish Home”, taking in the importance and relevance of Shabbat and kashrut in community and family life.
One of the most beautiful aspects of a girl turning Bat Mitzvah is that the transition from child to adult also marks the handing down of Jewish inheritance from mother to daughter. It is only fitting that a girl’s mother should have a role to play in her coming of age. So while their daughters are spending time preparing a D’var Torah, mums can enrol in a parallel Jewish education course for the older generation. Some communities take the mother-daughter side of becoming Bat Mitzvah even further. Kenton United Synagogue invites the mother of a Bat Mitzvah girl to write the D’var Torah in the Shul’s weekly newsletter. South Manchester Synagogue has prepared a special tefilla (prayer) for a mother to say on the occasion of her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah or bat chayil.
Finally, some extremely good news for fashion-conscious Bat Mitzvah girls. Some Jewish authorities stress the importance of buying a new outfit to be worn on the day of the twelfth birthday itself. The “shehechiyanu” blessing, always recited when a new garment of some significance is put on for the first time, will provide her with the perfect opportunity to simultaneously rejoice in her new status. As a Jewish woman, she will have a vital role to play in the future of her family and the whole Jewish nation. Regardless of which ceremony she chooses to mark her Bat Mitzvah, she should start as she means to go on.
In January 2007, the United Synagogue introduced a Bat Mitzvah test, parallel to the existing Bar Mitzvah test for boys, which girls can also sit three times a year. Candidates will also receive a certificate that can be given in the synagogue or other appropriate place. This provides a girl with the perfect opportunity to spend time studying Torah and considering her role within the Jewish community – from now on, all the responsibilities and privileges of an adult Jewish woman are hers for the taking.
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Mention the word Bar Mitzvah to the average almost-thirteen-year-old Jewish boy and they will probably wax lyrical about the great party they’re planning to have. But, in Jewish terms anyway, there’s actually no concept of “having a Bar Mitzvah”. The term simply refers to the fact that at the start of the fourteenth year of a boy’s life – namely, the day of his thirteenth Hebrew birthday – he becomes a Bar Mitzvah, a “son of the commandments.” He is required to keep the all the mitzvot (commandments) pertaining to Jewish men, such as being counted towards a minyan (quorum of Jewish men over the age of 13) and laying (putting on the) tefillin. No ceremony of any kind is really necessary at all.
Despite this, there is the long-established tradition of a Bar Mitzvah boy being called up to the Torah (Alliah) for the first time on the Shabbat after his thirteenth Hebrew birthday. The Bar Mitzvah feast also has a strong historical basis. The story is told in the Talmud, of Rabbi Yosef, a blind sage. At the time, the compilers of the Talmud were arguing over whether a blind man is obligated to keep mitzvot or not, and also whether one who observes them where not obligated is greater than one who does so because he has been commanded to. When the halachic decision was reached that not only is there more merit in keeping the Torah when you are commanded to do so, but that a blind man is also equally duty-bound, Rabbi Yosef held a large party. From here, we have the tradition of the “seudat mitzvah” for the Bar Mitzvah boy – as he too has just come into the position of being “obligated” in mitzvot.
Finally, for all those boys trembling at the thought of giving their Bar Mitzvah speech – blame for this ordeal lies with the yeshiva students of 17th century Poland. Back then it was popular for highly gifted Bar Mitzvah boys to display the breadth of their Talmudic knowledge in a drasha (discourse). Not to be outdone, less capable students began to ask their teachers to prepare speeches for them, to be learnt by heart. The tradition caught on and still prevails today.
In order to have a Bar Mitzvah in our synagogue on a Shabbat morning the boy must have a parent who is a member of the synagogue. The Bar Mitzvah must be halachically Jewish.
He may do as little as recite the brachot before and after the reading of the Sefer Torah and as much as recite Sedra, Maftir and Haftorah. The Bar Mitzvah is required to either pass the United Synagogue’s Bar Mitzvah Test or the synagogue’s Challenge 13 programme. We would accept other United Synagogues’ equivalent programmes to Challenge 13. The community would hope that the Bar Mitzvah boy attends synagogue regularly prior to his Bar Mitzvah and participates in events designed to enhance his Bar Mitzvah experience.
A Bat Mitzvah held under our synagogue’s auspices, whenever it is held and wherever it is held, must have a parent who is a member of the Shul. The Bat Mitzvah is required to be halachically Jewish. The Bat Mitzvah is required to give a Dvar Torah which should include at least a paragraph of Hebrew reading. The community would hope that Bat Mitzvah girl attends synagogue regularly prior to her Bat Mitzvah and participates in events designed to enhance her Bat Mitzvah experience.
Contact about the date for your son’s Bar Mitzvah.
The synagogue hall is available for hire for your celebration.
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