Celebrating B’not Mitzvah

This Shabbat, Congregation Emeth’s members and guests will have the privilege of witnessing the bat mitzvah of five adult women: Susan Braun, MariaElena Jarson, Marby Lee, Susan Meyers and Aileen Teren-Foster.  These women have been studying with me for the past two years, meeting every week, in preparation for this extraordinary day. (Bar mitzvah means “son of the commandment”, bat mitzvah means “daughter of the commandment”.  B’nei means sons or children, male and female; b’not means daughters, female only.  Mitzvah means commandment; mitzvot is the plural form, commandments.)

Usually a bar or bat mitzvah occurs when a child reaches the age of 13.  This time was selected because of a section of Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Ancestors, or Sages, a section of Talmud): 

At five years old a person should study the Scriptures, at ten years for the Mishnah, at thirteen for the commandments, at 15 for the Talmud, at 18 for the bridechamber, at 20 for one’s life pursuit, at 30 for authority, at 40 for discernment, at 50 for counsel, at 60 to be an elder, at 70 for gray hairs, at 80 for special strength, at 90 for decrepitude, and at a 100 as one who has already died and has ceased from the affairs of this world. (Pirke Avot, Chapter 5) 

In Jewish tradition, any person reaching the age of 13 is a bar or bat mitzvah, meaning they are now responsible for observing the mitzvot, or commandments. 

While the beginnings of the modern bar mitzvah ceremony appeared as early as the sixth century C.E., it was not until the Middle Ages that a fully developed ritual emerged. By the 13th or 14th century, the custom of calling a boy up to the Torah was established as the way of recognizing entry into manhood. (ReformJudaism.org)   In 1921, the first known bat mitzvah celebration took place. 

Our five b’not mitzvah celebrants did not prepare for this day because they suddenly have reached the age of mitzvot.  One doesn’t need a ceremony, only a 13th  birthday.  So why did they do it?  Some will share their journey to this decision when they speak on Shabbat morning. 

I celebrated my bat mitzvah at the age of 35, the first adult woman in my Conservative synagogue.  A radical idea at the time, the Rabbi and I weren’t sure how it would be received so we kept it a secret.  To ensure its secrecy, it took place on the second day of Passover!  I only invited my family and a few close friends.  Afterwards, the secret was out of course, so I was asked to write about it for the synagogue bulletin.  I don’t have a copy, but I remember what I said:  for me, the bat mitzvah ceremony represented a completion, not in the sense of being finished but rather being whole, complete.  I was shalem, complete in my Judaism, and felt fully satisfied, if you can imagine the metaphor. 

I am so proud of these women and what they learned and accomplished.  Are they finished as learners?  Not by a long shot.  But I think all would agree that they feel shalem.  I hope you will be present to witness their accomplishments and to share in their joy. 

Rabbi Debbie Israel