Few Jewish rituals celebrate life in a more complete way than that of a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. From the perspective of a congregation, a bar or bat mitzvah holds great significance for the entire community. It celebrates a congregation’s efforts to educate its children; it brings members together in ways which mix the private aspects of a life-cycle celebration with the public aspects of communal worship; and it generates enthusiasm for the transmission of Torah from generation to generation. In many ways, this ancient ceremony provides multiple generations of a community an opportunity to learn, evolve and celebrate in a very Jewish way.
To become bar/bat mitzvah means to become a religiously responsible individual in the eyes of the Jewish community. The terms Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah literally mean “son and daughter of the commandment.” Technically, these terms refer to a coming of age when Jewish boys and girls become accountable for religious observance.
According to the Talmud, this transition in personal accountability takes place as soon as a child begins to look like an adult (usually at the age of 12 or 13). Thus, the bar mitzvah ceremony for boys and the bat mitzvah ceremony for girls each represent ways for the entire community to formally recognize and publicly celebrate the beginning of religious adulthood.
While this ceremony has long been a celebration for teens, a second kind of bar/bat mitzvah ceremony at the age of eighty-three has gained popularity. This Second Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony is based on a reading found in Psalm 90:10, which says that the span of a human life is three score and ten years. Based on this ancient expectation for the human lifespan, our tradition has come to see seventy years of age as a new beginning. Eighty-three years of age, therefore, could be considered the equivalent to reaching bar/bat mitzvah age a second time around.
At HCRJ, we recently celebrated yet another form of bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, which I believe has the potential to become a new and extremely powerful way of commemorating Jewish values and personal commitments to our faith and heritage. On Saturday night, May 11, Bruce Shelby and Jay Kaplan celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their becoming b’nai mitzvah. In contrast to the ceremonies at thirteen and eighty-three, this anniversary version of b’nai mitzvah has no precedent, and therefore had the potential to define an entirely new concept in the celebration of a Jewish life.
Bruce and Jay first celebrated becoming bnai mitzvah in 1969 at Congregation Emanu El. On that date, they read from the Torah and celebrated with family and friends. They each delivered speeches which addressed how they planned to apply the values found in their Torah portions to their lives in the future.
Fifty years later, at HCRJ, Bruce and Jay read the same Torah portion and celebrated with many of the same family and friends, but this time they had the joy of looking back rather than ahead. They had an opportunity to reflect on how they had, indeed, applied the values they pledged to uphold in their speeches at the age of 13 and consider how those values shaped their lives throughout the years. In this powerful ceremony, their wives and children expressed their appreciation and shared their pride and their love.
When we think about it, the only time this kind of retrospective tribute to our adult lives ever takes place is after we die and a eulogy is crafted in our memory. How glorious it is to be able to celebrate our accomplishments and our devotion to our faith, family and community with those we love while we are still physically and mentally able to do so.
Whether it is at thirteen, eighty-three or in celebration of the anniversary of our coming of age, the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony continues to be one of the most meaningful ritual celebrations of our faith. Through its focus on the transmission of our values through Torah, prayer and mitzvah, the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony enables us to confirm and embrace our place as a link in a timeless chain of tradition that reaches back through our heritage and forward (we pray) into the future.