Schauss traces bar mitzvah from biblical and talmudic times, when it meant simply reaching the age of majority, through later ceremonial observances of the occasion. Particularly interesting is his focus on customs surrounding the bar mitzvah ceremony, both in Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions. He also suggests why it became traditional for the bar mitzvah to read the maftir, the last of the sections of the Torah portion on a Shabbat. Adapted with permission from The Lifetime of a Jew Throughout the Ages of Jewish History (UAHC Press, now out of print).
In the Bible, a man reached the age of majority at 20, when he was eligible for war and taxation. In talmudic times, the age of majority was moved to 13, and in recognition of the son’s change in status, the father pronounced a blessing in which he praised God for relieving him of responsibility for his son’s conduct. But no celebration marked the occasion.
During the Talmudic era and early medieval times, a ceremony made no sense, because a minor was permitted to participate in all religious observances as soon as he was considered mentally fit [to do so]. He was called up to an aliyah to say blessings over the Torah and was supposed to wear tefillin, or phylacteries. The minor was even encouraged to fast on Yom Kippur. Two years before he turned 13, a child fasted until noon, and a year before his majority, he fasted the whole day.
The distinction between a minor and one who had obtained his majority was theoretical. The latter did as a religious duty what a minor did optionally. The majority was not distinguished by additional religious duties and privileges, and therefore the attainment of majority could not be marked by any special observances. Until late in the Middle Ages, the attainment of majority was an uneventful date in the life of the Jew.
Gradually, during the later Middle Ages, this situation underwent a change. The religious rights that the Talmud accorded to the minor were now restricted. He was deprived of the right to be "called up" to the reading of the Torah. He was no longer permitted to wear tefillin. The attainment of majority gained new importance as an attainment of new religious rights and the ground was prepared for a ceremony around the bar mitzvah, as a boy 13 years old was beginning to be called.
In the 16th century, among the Jews of Germany and Poland, it was the accepted custom that a boy could not begin to wear tefillin before the day following his 13th birthday. This custom was modified in the 17th century. The boy began wearing tefillin two or three months before he became bar mitzvah, so that by the time he reached his majority he was well acquainted with the practice and rules of laying tefillin.
The right of a minor to be called up to the bimah, or pulpit, for the reading of the Torah underwent a similar development among the Ashkenazim (German and Polish Jews). As far back as the 13th century among the Franco-German Jews, the privilege of being called up for the reading of the Torah was withdrawn from minors. Only on Simchat Torah, the last day of Sukkot, could minors enjoy this right. The attainment of religious majority signified the attainment of the right to have an aliyah--to witness the reading of the Torah on the bimah and to recite the blessings over it.
These two religious rights, laying tefillin and being called up to the Torah, became the most essential features of the bar mitzvah observance. In the 16th century it was obligatory to call up the bar mitzvah lad to the reading of the Torah on the Sabbath coinciding with or following his 13th birthday.
In very cautious pious circles the elders watched lest the bar mitzvah lad be called up to the reading of the Torah before he had attained the full age of 13 years. This might be the case, for example, if the boy’s 13th birthday fell on the Sabbath. For safety’s sake, the custom arose that still prevails today, that even on the bar mitzvah Sabbath, the boy was not among the seven men [and, in more liberal synagogues, women] called on every Sabbath to the reading of the Torah, but after them. He was called to the reading of the last paragraph of the Torah portion, the maftir, and of the haftarah, the portion of the Prophets that is read after the week’s Torah portion.
The bar mitzvah ceremony was not confined to the synagogue. New features were added that shifted the center of the celebration from the synagogue to the home of the parents, such as the bar mitzvah feast and the bar mitzvah drasha (discourse). The party held on the bar mitzvah Sabbath was regarded as a seudat mitzvah, or religious feast.
The religious aspect of the bar mitzvah feast was enhanced in Poland, where the drasha was introduced. In Poland, the center of talmudic learning in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were precocious and highly gifted boys of bar mitzvah age who were capable of delivering an original casuistic discourse in talmudic law. Naturally, these boys were the exceptions, but there were many others who could, with the assistance of their teacher, accomplish this feat of learning. It was a test and display of talmudic knowledge. In many cases, the teacher prepared the drasha, and the boy learned it by rote and then delivered it.
In the 17th century among the German Jews in Worms, the lad was dressed in new clothes bought especially for this occasion. On the Sabbath of his bar mitzvah he chanted the entire Torah portion. If he happened to have a pleasant voice, he also recited all the prayers before the congregation. Some lads who were not so well versed in Hebrew led only one of the services, either the evening prayers (Maariv), the morning prayers (Shacharit), or the additional Sabbath prayers (Musaf). There were boys who were not able to recite even the week’s Torah portion, but every bar mitzvah boy was called up to [make the blessings on] the reading of the Torah and vowed to give a pound of wax for candles to illuminate the synagogue.
The bar mitzvah feast was served in the afternoon, as the third meal of the Sabbath. An hour before Mincha (the afternoon prayers), the bar mitzvah lad, dressed in his new clothes, went to the homes of the guests to invite them to the third meal. At the meal, the lad delivered a drasha on the customs of bar mitzvah and acted as the leader in reciting the grace after the meal (birkat hamazon).
There is, in modern times, no uniformity in the bar mitzvah celebration. The bar mitzvah may read the entire Torah portion, the maftir (final portion), the haftarah, or some combination and may deliver a drasha; but he would definitely have an aliyah. There is also a divergence in the custom regarding the tallit, or prayer shawl. In some communities a boy donned a tallit on the Sabbath of his bar mitzvah; in others, he did not put it on until he was married. The Ashkenazic Jews always present gifts to the boy in honor of his bar mitzvah.
In America, the bar mitzvah celebration plays an important role in Jewish life and is often accompanied by a fancy party and gifts. Rather than having the father teach the son, as was traditional, most children prepare in religious school or with the help of a private tutor.
Unlike the Ashkenazim, the Sephardim do not restrict the rights of the minor. The Sephardim still adhere to the talmudic law, which allowed a minor to put on tefillin and to be called up to the reading of the Torah, and they celebrate bar mitzvah in their own distinctive way.
Primarily, the Sephardim celebrate the first laying of tefillin, which takes place exactly a year before attaining majority. On that day, the parents hold a sumptuous feast for all their relatives and friends, and the boy, if capable, delivers a drasha on a topic pertaining to the occasion. Only the rich hold a second celebration a year later, when the boy reaches his majority.
Among the Jews of Morocco, too, the main emphasis in the bar mitzvah celebration is placed upon the first laying of tefillin. This takes place on the Thursday after the 12th birthday. The feast is held at the home of the parents on the preceding day, Wednesday. On Thursday, the morning services are held in the boy's home, where all the worshippers gather and take part in the ceremony. The rabbi of the community binds the phylactery upon his head. A choir accompanies the ceremony with a hymn. The boy is then called up to the reading of the Torah as the third participant after the Kohen and the Levite (on Thursday and Monday only a small portion of the Torah is read, for which only three are called).
At the end of the services the boy delivers his discourse. Then he proceeds with his tefillin bag among the men and the women present, and everyone throws silver coins into the bag. The boy presents this gift money to the teacher. The guests partake of a breakfast and, in the evening, they again gather in the house. On the following Sabbath, the boy is called up to the reading of the haftarah. This is accompanied by a piyyut, a liturgical poem, composed for this occasion.