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Naomi Graetz

Parshat Tetzaveh and a bar mitzvah at 83

Michael Graetz with parents at his Bar Mitzvah, 1953. (courtesy)
Michael Graetz with parents at his Bar Mitzvah, 1953. (courtesy)

This coming Shabbat, my husband turns 83. In answer to his question, why we are not celebrating his birthday this coming Shabbat on March 4th, I remind him that we ARE celebrating it, but next week, when we are having a bar mitzvah for him, as per his request a half year ago.  He started talking about doing this a long time ago, when one of his favorite cousins had a bar mitzvah on turning 83. Cousin Howard read the haftarah, gave a sermon connecting the parsha to the haftarah and even had candies thrown at him. I thought it a strange custom, but after heeding my life partner’s request (we are almost into 60 years of marriage) and planning the celebration—which of course includes an elaborate kiddush, I decided to look into it, for it is not a commonplace thing to do; in fact, in Israel most people are not familiar with the idea. My nephew sent me a link to a website in Hebrew where there is a discussion about this (https://forum.otzar.org/viewtopic.php?t=19356)

True, there are many adults who have a bar or bat mitzvah later in life, but usually it is because they never had one when they were younger. It is very common among adult women who never marked their coming of age at 12 and who now spend a year learning enough Hebrew so that they can chant from the Torah. I was part of such a group in my congregation in Omer, many years ago. But among men, there were often missed opportunities in the past to celebrate, such as disease, war, poverty, assimilation in the Soviet Union. And when they did celebrate, it was often a minor affair—no big deal or kiddush; just being called up for an aliyah to the Torah in the synagogue. If they were lucky, there was herring and schnapps!

So, I googled it. The first thing that came up was:

“Among some Jews, a man who has reached the age of 83 will celebrate a second bar mitzvah, under the logic that in the Hebrew Bible it says that a normal lifespan is 70 years, so that an 83-year-old can be considered 13 in a second lifetime. This ritual is becoming more common as people live longer, healthier lives” (Wikipedia)

The second thing that came up was an article published in 2016 by Howard Lev, entitled: “83 is the New 13: Why Have a Second Bar Mitzvah?” Lev wrote:

“The custom of a second bar mitzvah, which has begun to become popular, is based on the reading of Psalm 90:10, which says that 70 years is the expected lifespan of most humans. Reaching age 70, then, can be considered a new start – and therefore, age 83 would be the equivalent to reaching b’nai mitzvah age again. This is also a great way to keep older congregants involved in synagogue life” (https://reformjudaism.org/blog/83-new-13-why-have-second-bar-mitzvah).

The author was so impressed that he allowed his daughter to plan his second bar mitzvah even though he is still in his sixties.

Another article ascribes this new custom to this:

“The reason this ritual is becoming more common is simple: Men are living longer, healthier lives.” And this writer adds: “For many a young person, the decision to become bar mitzvah was not voluntary. For many, it was just expected. That’s what makes the second bar mitzvah a bit more personal. A second bar mitzvah simply seems like a nice way to reflect on a lifetime” (https://stljewishlight.org/celebrations/celebrations-bar-and-bat-mitzvahs/83-is-the-new-13-and-rabbi-stiffman-is-all-in-for-his-second-bar-mitzvah/).

After doing “serious” google research, it would seem that it become a popular custom after the actor Kirk Douglas did this in 1999 and who repeated it when he was 93!! As everyone who writes an article refers to Psalms 90, verse 10 to point out that a full lifetime is 70 years, I decided to look at the context of this verse:

A prayer of Moses, the man of God.  Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation. Before the mountains came into being, before You brought forth the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity You are God. You return man to dust; You decreed, “Return you mortals!” For in Your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed, like a watch of the night. You engulf men in sleep; at daybreak they are like grass that renews itself; at daybreak it flourishes anew; by dusk it withers and dries up. So we are consumed by Your anger, terror-struck by Your fury. You have set our iniquities before You, our hidden sins in the light of Your face. All our days pass away in Your wrath; we spend our years like a sigh. The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow.   

יְמֵֽי־שְׁנוֹתֵ֨ינוּ בָהֶ֥ם שִׁבְעִ֢ים שָׁנָ֡ה וְאִ֤ם בִּגְבוּרֹ֨ת׀ שְׁמ֮וֹנִ֤ים שָׁנָ֗ה וְ֭רָהְבָּם עָמָ֣ל וָאָ֑וֶן כִּי־גָ֥ז חִ֝֗ישׁ וַנָּעֻֽפָה:

They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness. Who can know Your furious anger? Your wrath matches the fear of You. Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart. Turn, 0 LORD! How long? Show mercy to Your servants. Satisfy us at daybreak with Your steadfast love that we may sing for joy all our days. Give us joy for as long as You have afflicted us, for the years we have suffered misfortune. Let Your deeds be seen by Your servants, Your glory by their children. May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, 0 prosper the work of our hands! (Psalm 90: 1-17)

Clearly God’s permanence is contrasted with our shortness of life. All humans suffer. If we are lucky (that is, if God is willing) our lives will be full of joy. It is interesting that this psalm is recited daily. It is dedicated to Moses, because he died before entering Canaan. As to our verse, seventy is 7 times 10. Seventy is considered to be a perfect number. If you reached it in the past, you were lucky. Today, dying at seventy is considered to be a tragedy. We conclude by asking God to refrain from continuing to punish us and not to display his wrath: “give us some joy to compensate for all the misfortune we have suffered!”

So in celebrating his second bar mitzvah at the age of 83, my husband will get great joy; our children, grandchildren, friends and members of our congregation will partake of his nachos in a job well done.  I just sent out the invites, requesting people’s “presence”, not “presents”. Although this mitzvah is not a commandment, his birthday this week comes out when we read parshat tetzaveh. I think a fitting conclusion to this blog will be to quote what he wrote in his own commentary:

The phrase from which we get the name of our parasha, is intriguing. The word “tetzaveh” means you will command. The nuance is one who promulgates “mitzvoth”. In most of the Torah Moses instructs Israel (“diber” means instruct, cf. Ex. 34, 28 et al “aseret ha-devarim” the ten instructions) or speaks to Israel (“amar”). It is rare that Moses is told to “command” Israel. When Moses commands does that mean that Moses is considered the author of the commandment? This is a difficult reading because the content of the mitzvah is spoken in God’s name. So, what does it mean for Moses to command what God has already commanded? (Rabbi Michael Graetz, “Exodus”, Inquire And Explore With Wisdom)

If you want the answer, please go to his website: https://rabbimichaelgraetz.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/exodus-humash-2.pdf, page 107). Studying with him, will be the greatest tribute and present.

Shabbat shalom!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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