- Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Bas Mitzvah: What Does It Celebrate? A Letter of Explanation to Unaffiliated Bas Mitzvah Guests
You will soon be receiving an invitation to our daughter's bas mitzvah, and I would like to clarify something in advance, in order to address a question you may have once you receive the invitation.
You will notice that the invitation is not the type which is used for formal affairs, and that the bas mitzvah party will be far less elaborate than a bar mitzvah celebration. I would like to explain why this is so. (It is not because we are discriminatory or cheap.)
Despite what some people think, a bar mitzvah (for young men) is not primarily a celebration of the young man becoming obligated to observe the mitzvos (commandments). All minors, based on their maturity and abilities, are rabbinically obligated (i.e. required as per the enactment of the Talmudic authorities of thousands of years ago) to observe most of the mitzvos well before becoming bar or bas mitzvah. (I use the word “bas”, which is the Hebrew word for “daughter”, as articulated according to Ashkenazic pronunciation.) Once a child becomes bar or bas mitzvah, this obligation to observe mitzvos becomes mandated by the Torah itself.
Although becoming obligated to observe mitzvos on a Torah level is something very special, it is not the real basis for the bar mitzvah celebration.
The true basis for bar mitzvah observances is something that pertains uniquely to young men. Please allow me to explain.
As you may have noticed from attendance of bar mitzvah services and receptions, the "bar mitzvah boy” leads parts of the service, reads from the Torah, and delivers a discourse on Halacha (Jewish law). He also usually completes a study of a major section of Talmud, after which he recites a special Kaddish which is only recited after completing such study. Why is this all done?
Upon reaching the age of 13, a young man takes on a new identity in Judaism – that of a representative of the community. At this time, the young man is not only obligated by the Torah to observe mitzvos; rather, he can now make a minyan (quorum for prayer) and serve as a chazzan (cantor, or service leader), representing the community in a very public manner. To mark and demonstrate this new public status that a young man attains upon bar mitzvah, he serves as chazzan, reads the Torah at the service, and delivers a public halachic discourse.
Attainment of the status as a representative of the community is the most significant and halachically transformative lifecycle event for a Jewish male. As such, the celebration is grand (albeit that celebrating a bar mitzvah with ostentatious or rowdy parties in sports stadiums or with rock stars is not exactly what the Torah envisioned as the correct method to mark this monumental religious milestone!).
Although a woman may surely hold very public positions, the Jewish religious and spiritual identity of women is totally different. A woman does not share the same status as a male in this regard.
Tanach (the Bible) and the Talmud are replete with expressions that affirm that the woman’s religious character is a private one; her spiritual identity never becomes public, regardless of how renowned and accomplished she may be in the public sphere.
Where then can a woman cultivate this religious and personal, private identity? Put otherwise, what is a Jewish woman’s greatest spiritual and religious milestone, when she has the opportunity to celebrate and be celebrated to the maximum?
As my mother told us when we were growing up, “a boy’s ‘big day' is his bar mitzvah; a girl’s ‘big day’ is her wedding.” This is not a mere folk-sentiment; rather, it comes from the heart of our holy texts and traditions.
Jewish law considers the wedding as the single most important religious milestone of a woman. In fact, the wedding is centered around the bride, not the groom. (For example, the groom makes his way to the bride for the Badekken (Veiling), and the groom is expected to bless the bride on this occasion – not the reverse. The Sheva Berachos recitation and celebration after the wedding is expressed in the Talmud as being performed for the sake of the bride. The Talmud records how the Sages would dance at weddings before brides and utter the brides' praises; the groom is not mentioned in this context. The Talmud further rules that the groom is required to make his bride merry – not the reverse; and so forth.)
Why is this so? Is it a reflection of reverse discrimination to favor women?
Hardly. Each party to marriage has its unique, different roles and responsibilities, but that of the woman is more important than that of the man. How is this?
At the chuppah, the bride encircles the groom seven times (in Ashkenazic custom). This symbolizes that the woman is the builder of the home. (This idea is clearly expressed in Sefer Mishlei/Book of Proverbs.) Whereas the groom must provide for his wife and his new home, the bride is the one who sets the tone, builds the family, and is at the center. This is a woman’s ultimate religious fulfillment and spiritual identity. Initiation into this critical role is her most important milestone, her monumental attainment of a new religious status. It is for this reason that the wedding day belongs to the bride and why her celebration on her wedding day is so grand.
Back to the bas mitzvah. Just as a festive meal is held upon the bris of a baby boy or the birth and naming of a baby girl, marking the embarkation on a life of mitzvos, so too is the bas mitzvah celebration in many traditional Orthodox communities marked with a similar type of meal/party. The celebration is modest, as the most important celebration, which reflects the single most major milestone attainment of a new religious and spiritual state of being for the young woman, is yet to come at her wedding.
In this spirit and manner will our daughter's bas mitzvah be celebrated, with God’s help. It will be a party for females and will be similar in terms of elaborateness to a nicely-catered bris or kiddush.
We would love to see you there, and thank you for taking the time to read this.