There is no ancient and unified tradition of parties for the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, and therefore, this event invites and encourages one to personally and creatively express him/herself. Different communities integrate a variety components into this event: traditional celebrations in the synagogue, creative parties, huge celebrations in grand halls, a Tefillin-laying ceremony and aliyah to the Torah in the synagogue, hikes and trips, Bar/Bat Mitzvah projects, and more. It is the responsibility of every teen who reaches the Bar/Bat Mitzvah age to decide if and how to celebrate the event.
In the synagogues of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration is shared by the whole family, in a ceremony which includes an aliyah to the Torah and reading from Torah and the Haftara. Leading up to the ceremony, the B'nai Mitzvah (Bar and Bat Mitzvah students) attend preparatory classes in reading the Torah and Haftara and the meaning of this ceremony in Jewish life - accepting the commandments and responsibility for his/her family, the community, the society, and the nation.
The oldest source referring to the Bar Mitzvah age is the Mishnah:
Five years old, the Bible,
Ten years old, the Mishnah,
Thirteen years old, the Commandments,
Fifteen years old, the Talmud,
Eighteen years old, the Chuppah (Marriage) . . .
Tractate Avot, Chapter 5, Mishnah 21
Today, the ages of twelve and thirteen, in traditional communities, signify the acceptance of responsibility and religious obligation and joining the community. In contrast to the Mishnah, which determines that thirteen is the proper age for accepting religious obligation, we find a more personal treatment of the age of joining the community in other sources and stories. It seems that many times the age was chosen according to one's personal development.
When we hear the words Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah, we usually think of large celebrations, hundreds of guests, piles of presents, a ceremony in the synagogue, and speeches. We imagine that Jews have always celebrated this event in this way. However, Dr. Shalom Tzabar, from Hebrew University's Department of Jewish Folklore, comments that the designing of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony began relatively late in history:
Unlike other important rites of passage in Judaism - Brit Milah, Pidyon Haben, Kiddushin and Nisuin (marriage), death and burial - there were no outside ceremonies or events tied to the Bar Mitzvah that required special preparations. Moreover, we are not speaking here of an ancient ceremony, whose roots run deep, like the rest of the rites of passage in the ancient biblical sources. The truth of the matter is that neither this obligation nor a similar one for the adolescent reaching the age of thirteen is mentioned in the Bible. Rimonim 5 (1996) Page 16
The fact that there is no age-old and sacred tradition of celebrating the Bar/Bat Mitzvah paradoxically contributes to the development of these ceremonies. The lack of a traditional, sacred ceremony allows individuals and families the opportunity to more personally and creatively relate to the ceremony. In contrast to the marriage and Brit Milah ceremonies, in which there is an overly strict guarding of the details of the traditional ceremony, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony - and particularly the Bat Mitzvah - is characterized by flexibility and creativity.
In the communities of Ashkenaz, reading from the Torah or Haftara was considered one of the key components of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Aliyah to the Torah illustrated the religious development and maturing of the adolescent and his joining the community. From this day, the youth was considered an equal and his reading of the Torah fulfilled the obligation of the others present.
In the Book of Customs of the Worms Community written by Joseph Halevy (1604-1673), the caretaker of the community, the custom of reading from the Torah as a central component of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony is described:
On the Shabbat following boys turning thirteen and one day, the majority of the Bar Mitzvah youth read the weekly portion for the congregation . . . S. Asaf, Sources for the History of Education in Israel, Volume 1, Page 108
From the word majority that appears in the original, we learn that reading from the Torah in the synagogue for the Bar Mitzvah was not an obligation, but rather the prerogative of Bar Mitzvah-aged youth who were trained to do so.
In the Jewish communities of Yemen, no ceremonial meaning is granted to reading the Torah in public and it is not necessarily seen as a part of the Bar Mitzvah. It is not seen as part of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony due to the fact that children even younger than thirteen read prayers and from the Torah in public.
Today, in most Jewish communities in Israel and the world, aliyah to the Torah is seen as one of the central aspects of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.
In our day and age, it is acceptable to lay Tefillin for the first time at the age of Bar Mitzvah. This rule is learned from the Mishnah:
Women, servants, and children are exempt from saying the Shema and Tefillin . . .
Mishnah Brachot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 1
The sages of the Mishnah indeed discussed exceptions to the rule:
For a child who knows to observe the commandment of Tefillin, his father should give him Tefillin.
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arachin, Daf Bet, Amud Bet
According to these sources, when a child reaches the stage of maturity that enables him to properly relate to the commandment of Tefillin, he may begin to perform the commandment. The source above does not designate an age, but rather describes characteristics which demonstrate the youth's maturity. As in the case of joining the Grace After Meals and performing many other commandments, younger children whose personalities and intellectual development allow them to understand the meaning of the commandments they are performing and relate to them with the proper respect are invited to start performing them.
Moroccan Jews, like other Jewish communities in the east, were accustomed to laying Tefillin from a young age - eleven, ten, and even eight. Rabbi Yosef Mashesh, one of the great rabbis of Machnes in Morocco, in his book Living Waters, designated those who wait until the age of thirteen to teach their sons the commandment of Tefillin as a lazy sect.
In the communities of Ashkenaz and Eastern Europe, the commandment of Tefillin was tied to the Bar Mitzvah age. An expression of the exciting ceremony of laying the Tefillin for the first time - as preparation for the Bar Mitzvah - is found in a Shaul Tchernichovsky poem.
Suddenly, before my eyes were the days of my childhood, and I am a youth, still before my Bar Mitzvah, and for the first time in my life, now I will wrap the Tefillin . . . Shaul Tchernichovsky, Poems, Page 181
Today, it is acceptable to perform the Tefillin-laying ceremony some time before the Bar Mitzvah celebration. As stated above, in the congregations of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, young women are also invited to take part in this ceremony. The ceremony is performed on a weekday (since we do not lay Tefillin on Shabbat or festivals) during the Shacharit (morning) service. Many perform the ceremony and prayers in special locations such as the Western Wall or other important historical places.
The Movement for Progressive Judaism and, in its footsteps, other non-Orthodox movements have chosen to correct the discriminatory treatment of women in the religious framework. Women in our congregations are equal in every sense of the word. They serve as rabbis and community leaders, are counted for the minyan (prayer quorum), and serve as prayer leaders and read from the Torah. In the congregations of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, young women and men are equally invited to celebrate the process of maturing through the Tefillin-laying ceremony, an aliyah to the Torah, reading from the Torah and Haftara, and giving a sermon. The performing of aliyot by young women is still a new phenomenon (in Israel) and because of this, most of the youth who go up to the Torah, even in our congregations, are still young men.
In 1922, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan brought his daughter, Judith, up to the Torah, in the first modern Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Kaplan acted through his evolutionist understanding of Judaism (the view of Judaism as a changing and developing culture, like every other culture), according to which the old cornerstones of Judaism build new structures in every generation and the ceremony must become egalitarian. Kaplan maintained that it was not only acceptable but also incumbent upon us to give new meanings to old traditions.
According to the accepted Halacha (Jewish Law) women are exempt from laying Tefillin:
Women, servants, and small children are exempt from saying the Shema and laying Tefillin . . .
Tractate Brachot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 1
However, in several places in the Talmud, we read that one woman used to lay Tefillin:
Michal, the daughter of Saul, wore Tefillin
Tractate Tefillin, Chapter 1, Halacha 3
In the traditional Jewish world, there was a constant argument about whether women should be prevented from laying Tefillin or if, in the case a woman desired to do so, she was allowed to perform this commandment.
The ruling of the Radvaz in his book of questions and answers determines that a woman who decides to lay Tefillin must say the blessing over this commandment:
A woman who lays Tefillin or Tzitzit says a blessing . . .
Questions and Answers, the Radvaz (5:60)
In the traditional Jewish world, we find only isolated instances of women who chose to lay Tefillin. However, as mentioned above, in the congregations of the Movement for Progressive Judaism, the idea of equality between women and men is taught and practiced. In these congregations, B'not Mitzvah (plural of Bat Mitzvah) are encouraged to have a Tefillin-laying ceremony.
Despite the widespread opposition to women's participation in religious activities for hundreds of years, it is possible to find minor testimonies that in the far past the situation was slightly different. There were even a few opportunities for integrating women into religious activities in the synagogue. In one source in the Babylonian Talmud, it is written:
In all, seven go up to the Torah, even a child or a woman.
Tractate Megillah, Daf 23, Amud 1
From this source, we learn that on Shabbat, on which seven people go up to the Torah, a woman (and small children) may also go up. According to this source, a woman may also read from the Torah. However, further on, there is a reservation:
But the wise ones said: A woman shall not read from the Torah in order to respect the public.
It seems that there were those who did not feel comfortable with the rule that women were allowed to have aliyot to the Torah and read from it. Thus, it was decided to include a reservation of sorts after the rule determining that in order to respect the public women do not read from the Torah. Due to the fact that this amendment was written at a time when the person going up to the Torah also read from the Torah, the prohibition on women reading from the Torah also prohibited, in effect, their having an aliyah, or going up to the Torah. Respecting the public is not a sound basis for codifying a unified policy - that is for all times, all places, and all publics - on this matter. Respecting the public must take into account the public and is intimately tied to the customs and atmosphere of the congregation. Thus, in a congregation in which women are not respected or honored as men are and women's presence and participation in prayer bothers men, women reading from the Torah is indeed considered harming or taking away from public respect. Indeed, because of this fact, it is particularly impressive that in the first centuries of the Common Era, women were permitted to have aliyot and to read from the Torah, permission which was then taken away in later generations.
Today, it is common to celebrate with Bat Mitzvah parties. Because it is not a religious ceremony in the full sense of the word but rather a festive meal, there are also Orthodox poskim (law authorities) who support holding this type of event for young women and not just for young men. Many Orthodox congregations and families even encourage young women to give a speech at the celebration. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, among the most important poskim of our time, ruled that there needs to be a party and festive meal for the Bat Mitzvah:
Of course there must be a meal and rejoicing for the Bat Mitzvah.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Yavi Omar (6:29)
Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, considered one of the great Orthodox poskim of our times, said more explicitly:
An honest line of reasoning and the pedagogic principle involved almost obligate young women to celebrate their reaching the stage of obligation to perform the commandments. This differentiation between boys and girls as it relates to the celebration of their initiation into adulthood seriously harms the emotions of the maturing young woman.
Remnants of Fire (2:93)
According to the principles of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, logic, humanism, and respect demand the full integration of women into religious ceremonies and rituals. It is in this spirit of equality that the congregations of the Movement for Progressive Judaism operate.