April 12, 2024
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The History of the Bar Mitzvah

Part II

I have previously addressed the history of the “Baruch She-petarani” blessing, and the scant knowledge we have of bar mitzvahs until the time of R. Shlomo Luria (d. 1574) and his long passage in Yam Shel Shelomoh (Bava Kama 7:37).

Thereafter, the bar mitzvah ritual in Ashkenazic lands is much more documented. I am relying again on the book Bar Mitzvah: A History, by Michael Hilton (2014), who has gathered up numerous sources. I am only providing a tiny sample of the interesting material in this book.

1. The shamash of Worms recalls what happened to him on his bar mitzvah in 1617: “I was taught to chant the Torah portion [of Tetzaveh], but when the rabbis were informed of the situation, they did not permit me to read the Section Tetzaveh. Instead, I was required to read section Ki Tissa on the following Sabbath, for they decreed that the one who chants the Torah portion must have reached the age of 13 years and one day…” (The halacha requires “13 years plus one day.” Apparently his teacher interpreted “one day” differently than the rabbis.)

2. From the rules of the Ashkenazic Jewish community from Hamburg-Altona (Germany): “In the year 1700 it was added that a Bar Mitzvah may not read more than one section and then only if the cantor bears witness that he is skilled in the chanting of the whole Torah and if the cantor does not bear so witness, he may not even read one section.”

3. In the Great Synagogue, London, a rule was laid down in 1827 that the official Torah reader had to stand next to the bar mitzvah boy the whole time he was reading the Torah, on penalty of a fine. In the Western Synagogue, London, no boy was allowed to read from the Torah on the Saturday morning unless he had read from the scroll on the Thursday beforehand in the presence of the regular reader, who had to be convinced his reading was accurate.

4. The issue of priority to get called to the Torah has always been an issue, particularly the conflict between the bar mitzvah boy and a bridegroom. For example, in Krakow (1595), the bar mitzvah boy took priority. In Prague (1609), the bridegroom had the first claim.

5. Of much interest is a rule in the Ashkenazic community of Altona from 1747. The rule limited the number of people at the bar mitzvah meal, but added that “Sephardim and guests from other places are not counted in this number.” Altona had a large Sephardic community. Why would there be no limit on their attending? The author hazards some guesses but really does not know.

6. The author writes: “In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States it was no longer necessary to pay a teacher to write an individual speech. Small pocket books were published containing a selection of standard speeches for the boy (or his parents) to choose from. The earliest examples are in Yiddish, then in both Yiddish and English, and finally in English alone. The speeches given did not link to particular Torah readings but offered only general sentiments, so the boy could articulate the importance of the occasion, rather than show off his learning.”

”One such book was The Jewish American Orator, over five hundred pages in Yiddish, English, and Hebrew…first published in New York in 1907 and frequently reprinted. The bar mitzvah speeches were short, around five to ten minutes in length…”

Here is a sample: “In the presence of my dear parents, teachers, friends and honored assembly, I pledge my word today that I will be a reliable soldier in the army of the Jewish people. My only wish is that the Almighty Architect of the universe may shed light upon my path. I hope to succeed in this wish as our sages assured us that God always helps the one who desires to lead a pure life. My only striving is to give honor to my parents who have done so much for me, to give honor to my people, to participate in its joys and woes, and do all that is in my power to honor the name of the Jew.”

The publication of such books continued until 1954.

7. A rabbi recalled his bar mitzvah speech in 1943. He faithfully learned by heart the speech provided by his teacher which was full of quotations from the Talmud in Hebrew and Hungarian. But he secretly wrote his own speech based on Psalm 114 and that was the one he gave. There were “smiles of encouragement from grandparents, aunts and uncles, but gradually I became aware that my mother’s face was getting darker and darker…” When he finished, his mother hissed in his ear: “That was not the speech we paid for.”

8. What about bar mitzvahs in America? The author writes: “The first bar-mitzvah boy whose name is known to us in the lands that now form the United States was Mordechai Sheftall, who reached the age of thirteen in Savannah, Georgia, in 1748. Whether there were sufficient numbers to celebrate the occasion properly is not clear. A group of forty-two Jews had settled in Savannah in 1733…Of them thirty-four followed the Spanish and Portuguese (Sephardic) ritual…Many of the Sephardic Jews left in 1742, concerned about an impending Spanish attack from nearby St. Simon’s Island, leaving behind only a few Ashkenazic Jews, who held services in private homes.

“The congregation was kept going largely through the efforts of one Benjamin Sheftall. When his older son, Mordechai, was coming up toward the age of bar mitzvah, he sent for books and tefillin from London, which unfortunately failed to arrive in time…He wrote to a friend in London to try to find out if the ship carrying the items had been lost at sea: ‘I leave your Honor to guess in what grief I am in…my oldest son being three months ago thirteen years of age, and I not to have any frauntlets nor books fit for him.’ Mordechai Sheftall grew up to become not only a leader of the congregation in Savannah but also the highest-ranking Jewish officer on the American side during the Revolutionary War.”

——

The author’s book is so thorough that it even discusses the bar mitzvah of Krusty the Clown on a 2003 episode of the Simpsons, as well as of Marjorie Morgenstern’s brother Seth in Herman Wouk’s novel of that name from 1955.

The book also mentions the famous teshuvah of R. Moshe Feinstein in 1956 (Orach Hayim, # 104). When asked about the custom of “bat mitzvah,” he mentions bar mitzvahs in passing and states that, if he could, he would abolish them, as they bring no one closer to Torah and mitzvot and even lead to violation of Shabbat.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He will always remember the triple bar mitzvah at Cong. Beth Aaron in 1996. Three boys all lived on the same block on Grayson Pl. (Naftali Ehrenberg, Yehoshua Lindenbaum, and Aryeh Lustig) and figured out a way to share the honors. But only one had the honor of reading the haftarah.

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