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Written by Victoria Radin   

The Jewish Rite of Passage – Help for the Teen Years

The Rite of Passage from childhood to adulthood is practiced by many cultures. Its history in Jewish culture can be traced back as far as the 13th century. It is not known if it was practiced in biblical times although the Midrash (a Jewish Bible commentary) traces it to Abraham and his rejection of idolatry in his father’s house in Ur of the Chaldeans.

It is apparent, especially today, that the teenage years reflect a time when Satan is permitted to test and try individuals apart from their parental covering. The Jewish Rite of Passage, becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, is the way G-d has provided for victory over the forces of Satan that come against individuals in their teens––those entering adulthood. It revolves around a ceremony for which preparation has been made for many years. The ceremony officially confers upon the individual the responsibility of adulthood––the time when a Jewish teen publicly becomes accountable for his/her actions and accepts the consequences.

In Judaism, when a young man or woman reaches religious and legal maturity, he or she is responsible for fulfilling all the commandments. Both a ceremony and the individual for whom it is held are called a Bar Mitzvah (Son of the Commandment) or Bat Mitzvah (Daughter of the Commandment––although girls do not celebrate the rite of passage in Orthodox communities or in Israel). The young man or woman prepares all his or her life for this event.

The Jewish rite of passage was originally developed to help young boys become men. A boy had to prepare himself to assume a man’s role according to the ancient Jewish traditions. He had to concentrate and study about Judaism, its history and beliefs. He had to study the Hebrew language, which, it is believed, unites Jews all over the world. This preparation often requires a sacrifice. The young man or woman may have to give up leisure time, sports, or other favorite pastimes to achieve this goal by the prescribed date.

A public ceremony was developed to recognize the years of training in the Torah (1st five books of the Bible). On the day he achieves the age of 13 plus one day, the Bar Mitzvah (Son of the Commandment) has four privileges bestowed upon him:

  • He is counted with the men to make up a minyan (the ten men required for prayer or worship).
  • He can put on phylacteries (two small square leather boxes containing written scripture passages and worn on the left arm and on the head also known as tefillin) each morning for prayers.
  • He can be called on for aliyah (the privilege of ascending the bimah or platform in the synagogue to read from the Torah Scriptures).
  • He can be part of a Jewish court.

The synagogue service involves three parts:

  • The Release (Shepetarni),
  • The Sermon (Derashah),
  • The Meal (Seudah).

The Release involves the young man and his father or head of the home. From that ceremony on, the father is no longer responsible for the sins of his son when he prays: “Blessed be He who has relieved me of this obligation.” The young man is then called to aliyah (to go up) to the bimah (raised platform). He is given the privilege to read from the Torah and Haftorah (Prophets), reciting the various blessings. After leading the congregation in worship, the Bar Mitzvah demonstrates his ability to understand the Scriptures by giving a sermon expounding on passages from the Bible. This sermon confirms his graduation from intellectual apprenticeship to intellectual scholarship. [Today, many Bar Mitzvot (plural) only give a speech honoring their parents, teachers, and guests.]

Ceremonies may include the bestowal of gifts that symbolize the young man’s admission into the adult community such as Shabbat candlesticks, a Kiddush cup, a prayer book, a Bible, or a Tallit. The ceremony is followed by a festive meal traditionally held in a fellowship room of the synagogue.

The Jewish Prayer Book says: The Torah is a Tree of Life for those who cling to it, and those who support it are fortunate. Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah gives great wisdom for parents regarding the importance of encouraging their children in Torah study:

“One who studies Torah as a child, to what can he be compared? To ink written on fresh paper.” (The Sayings of the Fathers)

His words call to mind the words of another rabbi, Rabbi Shaul (the apostle Paul) who said:

“You (believers in Yeshua) make it clear that you are a letter from the Messiah placed in our care, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living G-d, not on stone tablets but on human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3, the Complete Jewish Bible)

Luke records in his gospel the story of Yeshua’s (Jesus’) demonstration of the rite of passage when at the age of twelve his earthly parents found Him in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers of the Law, both listening to them and asking them questions (Luke 2:46-52). Luke records that all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. He also records that Yeshua went home with His parents and was subject to them. In verse 52, Luke says that Yeshua increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with G-d. Yeshua’s example teaches that studying and obeying the Word of G-d from the earliest years will bring honor and praise from both G-d and man.

Jesus would probably say to parents today, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)

Barukh HaShem (Blessed is the Name of the L-rd)

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