Bar Mitz­vah: A History

Michael Hilton

  • Review
By – February 6, 2015

Bar mitz­vahs are an almost uni­ver­sal mile­stone in the lives of Jew­ish boys and bat mitz­vahs have become very com­mon for Jew­ish girls. These events com­bine reli­gious cus­toms with oppor­tu­ni­ties for sec­u­lar rejoic­ing. Rab­bi Michael Hilton traces the ori­gin of these events draw­ing on a com­bi­na­tion of Bib­li­cal, Rab­binic, and sec­u­lar sources. The book con­tains numer­ous nuggets of interest­ing infor­ma­tion. Hilton presents his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion that implies that mark­ing the tran­sition to Jew­ish adult­hood was inter­twined with the oblig­a­tion of a son to say kad­dish for a par­ent, a com­mit­ment that became espe­cial­ly promi­nent dur­ing times of extreme per­se­cu­tion, like the Cru­sades, when the adult male pop­u­la­tion was deplet­ed and younger men were left to say kad­dish for their fathers and take up the man­tle of com­mu­nal leader­ship by default.

The evo­lu­tion of the bar and more recent­ly the bat mitz­vah is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to observe the inter­sec­tion of mitzvot (com­mand­ments), min­hag­im (cus­tom), his­tor­i­cal forces, and changes in com­mu­nal sta­tus includ­ing wealth and the influ­ence of sec­u­lar and non-Jew­ish soci­ety on Jew­ish cus­toms. Hilton notes that Rav Moshe Fein­stein pro­posed, in 1956, that the cer­e­mo­ny ought to be cur­tailed since it led some Jews to des­e­crate the Sab­bath and did not bring boys clos­er to Torah obser­vance. Hilton’s book sug­gests, then, that the transi­tion to Jew­ish adult­hood is not con­tin­gent on this rite of pas­sage but that for many, it is a sec­u­lar cel­e­bra­tion rather than one that marks a tran­si­tion to tak­ing on adult reli­gious obligations.

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

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