Joel Hoffman
Rabbi, Teacher, Columnist

Let’s Reconsider the Bar/Bat Mitzvah

I have always wondered why Bar/Bat Mitzvah lessons consists of learning how to lead the prayer service, learning trope, and the near-memorizing of the chanting of a section of the Torah and Haftarah, especially since we know that 99% will never again lead the service nor read from the Torah or Haftarah.  We also do not teach the meaning of what is being chanted.  Therefore, I fail to see what rabbis and Jewish educators expect to be the long-lasting positive values from such an educational experience which we deem as so important.

I also find it hypocritical that parents expect their children to learn to do something that they themselves cannot do.  The result is children integrate that it is the performance that is the most important, not the meaning of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah which includes the responsibility of observing of mitzvot.

It is ironic that three thousand years ago the words of the Prophets inspired the masses of Jews to return to God, but now the process of learning to chant these very same words is a catalyst for our 13-year-olds and their families to drop out of Judaism.  Less than one-quarter of Hebrew school graduates get involved in a Jewish youth group or attend a weekly Hebrew High.  It is also common at many synagogues/temples for fifty percent of families to drop their membership after their youngest child has their Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

Most synagogues/temples today recognize the meaninglessness most students experience in studying for one’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  Therefore, most synagogues/temples have made a Mitzvah Project of the student’s choosing as one of the requirements to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony.  This way at least the student can do something that is meaningful to him/her such as volunteering or raising money for a cause.  It also gives the Bar/Bat Mitzvah something to talk about with his/her speech so s/he does not have to actually read the English translation of their Torah portion.

The results of our Jewish educational system, of which the Bar/Bat Mitzvah performance is seen as the climax, are horrible.  Lighting Shabbat candles is done by 34% of Jews who identify as being a Conservative Jew and by just 10% for Jews who identify as being a Reform Jew.  The percent of synagogue/temple members who can be found at synagogue/temple on a random Shabbat is just for Jews who are a member of a Conservative synagogue and just four percent for Jews who are a member of a Reform temple.  Perhaps the most important statistic is only 28% of non-Orthodox Jews marry another Jew.

There is no reason that by the next major study of American Jewry in about 20 years we can not double all of the above and related percentages if we make it a priority to do so.   But we have to want it bad enough to be bold enough to change the content, delivery and perception of Jewish education which includes rethinking the Bar/Bat Mitzvah — because what we are currently doing obviously is not working.

Before sharing my thoughts on the changes that I feel need to be made, it is important to first understand what the word Bar/Bat Mitzvah actually means and to know the historical development of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah performance.

Bar/Bar Mitzvah is a Noun:

The word Bar/Bar Mitzvah is a noun, not a verb.  There is no such thing as getting Bar/Bat Mitzvahed.  A rabbi does not Bar/Bat Mitzvah someone.  When a girl turns 12-years-old and a boy turns 13-years-old (according to their Jewish birthday) they automatically become a Bat Mitzvah or a Bar Mitzvah, which means they become obligated to follow the Mitzvot.  The child does not need to read a Haftarah, give a speech, nor have an extravagant party to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  This is akin to turning 18 years old in the United States – one becomes a legal adult.

The History of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah:

The first reference to Bar Mitzvah is Pirkei Avot (5:21) which states that 13 is the age for fulfilling the mitzvot.  In the 4th century it became the custom to call a recent Bar Mitzvah for an Aliyah to the Torah to mark this occasion. The 14th century halakhic work, the Tur (Orech Chayim 225:2), states that is it a mitzvah to have a seudah (festive meal) on the day one’s son becomes a Bar Mitzvah.  In the 16th century Bar Mitzvah boys began giving a d’var Torah, and in the 17th century Bar Mitzvah boys began leading part of the prayer service.  (My thanks to Robyn Faintich for the information in this paragraph.)

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (the founder of the Reconstructionist movement) invented the Bat Mitzvah in 1922 when he called up his 12-year-old daughter, Judith, for an aliyah and she recited the blessings and read from the Torah.  It took a few decades for the Bat Mitzvah to catch on, and later the Conservative and Reform movements changed the age for a Bat Mitzvah from 12-years-old to 13-years-old.  (To me this change seems anti-egalitarian because it denies that girls mature earlier than boys, but this is beyond the scope of this discussion.)

My Proposal:

  1. Revamp the Hebrew school curriculum so there is less emphasis on prayer and more emphasis on mitzvot.

The Hebrew school curriculum, even with the addition of Tikkun Olam and Eco-Judaism over the past 30 years, is still mostly focused on “synagogue Judaism” which most Jews find boring.  (Hence, the low synagogue participation rates even if their rabbi plays the guitar well.)

What I propose is teaching, encouraging and supporting Hebrew school students in doing the mitzvot of saying Modeh Ani every day as soon s/he wakes up, saying the Shema and the Ve’Ahavta every morning and in bed at night, and giving tzedakah every non-Shabbat day – all by the time one becomes a Bar/Mitzvah.  Additionally, girls lighting Shabbat candles prior to every Shabbat, and for boys making Kiddush every Friday night.

For this to occur we need to spiral the teaching of these mitzvot in every grade, provide the physical materials (tzedakah box, Kiddush cup, candle sticks, and refills on grape juice and candles), encourage their performance through Mitzvah Charts, and publically celebrate and recognize the students who do these mitzvot.  Getting the parents on board with doing these mitzvot should also be a constant emphasis of the synagogue/temple through a variety of medium.

Cumulatively, these mitzvot only take a few minutes per week to perform, as opposed to spending an hour or two in synagogue/temple, and with their ease to do and spiritual meaning behind them, there is a much better chance that their performance will be continued throughout one’s adult life.

(See my “Retooling Hebrew School,The Times of Israel, 3/11/16, in which I discuss other ways a Hebrew school can promote the doing of mitzvot.)

  1. Eliminate the Bar/Bat Mitzvah performance.

This is a radical change, but what I hoped to convey in this essay is that being a Bar/Bat Mitzvah had a modest beginning, but has grown into the preparation for a performance that has actually become counter-productive for Jewish continuity. Therefore, it is time to eliminate the Bar/Bat Mitzvah performance. Nevertheless, upon reaching the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah we should revert to doing  what was once novel in the fourth century which was calling a Bar/Bat Mitzvah to the Torah for an aliyah.  But no Bar/Bat Mitzvah lessons required.

  1. Extend Hebrew school through the 8th grade.

Hebrew school ends after the 7th grade, in part, because the parents viewed Hebrew school at being preparation for one’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Therefore, after one’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah there was no need to continue with Hebrew school.  But if we eliminate the Bar/Bat Mitzvah performance, it only makes sense to extend Hebrew school to the end of 8th grade to be in-sync with middle school graduation.

  1. Initiate a Siyum celebration at age 16.

A Siyum is a celebration after an individual or group completes learning a classical Jewish text and it has a long standing in Jewish history.  Essentially what I am proposing is replacing the Bar/Bat Mitzvah performance at age 13 with the preparing for and having a Siyum at age 16.  A  Bar/Bat Mitzvah is all about the performance, a Siyum is about celebrating the actual Jewish learning that took place.

The primary activity leading up to the Siyum is the one-on-one learning with the rabbi. Whereas in Hebrew school the students learned “Bible stories,” now when studying with the rabbi the students will be taking their Jewish education to the next level by engaging in textual analysis and at a more mature and sophisticated level.  But there are other Siyum requirements.

The requirements for this type of Siyum would include:

  1. Graduating from Hebrew school (which now goes through 8th grade).
  2. Doing a community service Mitzvah Project.
  3. Learning with the rabbi one-on-one every week until age 16. (If the synagogue/temple has a large number of Siyum students some could study with the  the cantor or with the rabbi in a group of no more than three students.)
  4. Continuing the observance of the four core mitzvot.
  5. Taking on one new mitzvah.
  6. The family having six Shabbat dinner experiences at the rabbi’s house.
  7. Monthly participation in Jewish youth group events.
  8. Delivering a d’var Torah/speech at the synagogue/temple.

My suggestion for the new mitzvah the student takes on is building a Sukkah at one’s house, and that Sefer B’rayshit (Book of Genesis) be the text the rabbi learns with the students.  Almost every Jewish value can be found in Sefer B’rayshit. 

Since the Siyum corresponds with the age one can get their driver’s license in most states, for many families a car can be the carrot that keeps the teenager motivated to have a Siyum.

The Six Things This Plan Accomplishes:

By adding the core mitzvah to the Hebrew school curriculum, eliminating the Bar/Bat Mitzvah performance, extending Hebrew school through the 8th grade, and initiating a Siyum celebration at age 16, six things are accomplished:

  1. Extending the Jewish education for many of our young teens for another three years.
  2. Replacing meaningless Bar Mitzvah tutoring with more meaningful and intellectually higher-level Torah learning.
  3. Developing a relationship with the rabbi.
  4. Fostering the doing of the core mitzvot as part of one’s daily/weekly regimen.
  5. Giving our young teens momentum in their involvement in a Jewish youth group.
  6. The bringing of more Judaism into many people’s home (i.e., lighting Shabbat candles, reciting Kiddush, building a Sukkah…).

Implementation Concerns: 

If the program relayed in this essay is proposed to a synagogue board the board is sure to immediately balk at it. The first thing that will come to their mind is that the synagogue/temple will lose the members who want their child to have the Bar/Bat Mitzvah performance they are accustomed to.  Additionally, those against the idea will argue that most of the students who remain through 8th grade Hebrew school will not continue on for a Siyum.

These concerns are valid.  My brief response is that we need to be leaders and to stop pandering to the minimalist-minded segment of our population because the spiritual survival of the Jewish people is at stake. Also, if we make the Siyum the expectation, and there’s no Bar/Bat Mitzvah performance, then we should be able to double what was the post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah participation rate in Jewish activities.  To rephrase a statement from above, if we want to spiritually save the Jewish people bad enough, then we have to be bold enough to make the necessary changes.

About the Author
Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman is a special education teacher for his "day job," and in his free-time he teaches and writes about Judaism.