It’s time to raise the bar on the bar/bat mitzvah

By Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman, Special to the Jewish Light

I have always wondered why bar/bat mitzvah lessons consists of learning trope, how to chant a section of the Torah and Haftarah, and how to lead parts of the service, especially because we know that 99 percent will never again read from the Torah or Haftarah nor lead the service. I fail to see the long-term positive benefits from such an educational experience.

It is ironic that 3,000 years ago, the words of the Prophets inspired Jews to return to God, but now the process of learning to chant these same words is a catalyst for our 13-year-olds to drop out of Jewish life. Fewer than 20 percent of Jewish high school students have some level of involvement in a Jewish youth group.  

Most synagogues require doing a mitzvah project that is meaningful to the 13-year-old and usually includes volunteering or raising money for a cause. This also gives b’nai mitzvahs something to talk about in their speeches so they don’t have to read the English translation of their Torah portions to know what they are about.

The results of our Jewish educational system, of which the b’nai mitzvah performance is seen as the climax, are horrible. Among non-Orthodox Jews, only 28 percent marry another Jew, fewer than 20 percent of Jewish women light Shabbat candles and synagogue attendance by adult members on a random Shabbat ranges from 5 percent to 10 percent.  

Before sharing my ideas for improving this situation, it is necessary to first relay some background about bar/bar mitzvah.


Bar/bar mitzvah is a noun

The word bar/bat 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 (on the Jewish calendar), she/he automatically become a bat or a bar mitzvah, which means they become obligated to follow the mitzvot.

It is not necessary to read from the Torah nor have a party with a DJ 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 fourth century it became the custom to call a recent bar mitzvah for an aliyah to the Torah to mark this occasion. The 14th century Jewish legal code, Tur (Orech Chayim 225:2), states that is it a mitzvah to have a 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. 

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan 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 non-Orthodox movements changed the age of bat mitzvah from 12 to 13 years old. 


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, still mostly focuses on “synagogue Judaism.” 

What I propose is teaching, encouraging and supporting Hebrew school students in doing the daily mitzvot of saying Modeh Ani, Shema and Ve’Ahavtah, and giving Tzedakah — all by the time one becomes a b’nai mitzvah.Additionally, girls lighting Shabbat candles prior to every Shabbat, and 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, encourage their performance through Mitzvah Charts and publicly recognize the students who do these mitzvot. Our aim should be for the majority of our students to regularly do these selected mitzvot throughout their lives. 

2. Eliminate the bar/bat mitzvah performance.

The bar/bat mitzvah had a modest beginning but has grown into the preparation for a performance that has become counter-productive for Jewish continuity. 

3. Extend Hebrew school through the eighth grade.

It makes sense to extend Hebrew school to the end of eighth grade to be in sync with middle school graduation, especially if the bar/bat mitzvah performance is eliminated.

4. Initiate a siyum celebration that coincides with one’s 16th birthday.

A siyum is a celebration after an individual or group completes learning a classical Jewish text, and it has a long history in Judaism. 

The primary activity leading up to the siyum is learning with the rabbi in a small group every week for two years.In doing so, one will study Judaism on a more mature and sophisticated level. 

The siyum would consist of giving a d’var Torah at synagogue services. Whereas a bar/bat mitzvah is all about the performance, a siyum is about celebrating the actual learning that took place.

Other requirements for the siyum could include taking on doing one new mitzvah (I recommend building a sukkah), a mitzvah project and the family having several Shabbat dinners at the rabbi’s house. 

Five things this plan accomplishes

The fruits of this plan include extending the Jewish education for many of our young teens for an additional three years, replacing dreaded bar mitzvah tutoring with more meaningful and intellectually higher-level Torah learning, developing a relationship with the rabbi, fostering the doing of selected mitzvot as part of one’s daily/weekly regimen and bringing more Judaism into many people’s home.

Implementing such a plan will require leaders who do not pander to the masses but focus on the spiritual survival of the Jewish people.


Joel E. Hoffman grew up in St. Louis and is a rabbi who works as a special education teacher at a public high school in Massachusetts. He also teaches seventh-grade Hebrew school and writes on Jewish themes.