Bar Mitzvah: transitioning to adulthood in the Jewish community

May 24, 2017 — by Aaron Choi and Esha Lakhotia

In accordance with Bar Mitzvah tradition, senior Zach Grob-Lipkis, then 13, screamed with excitement as he was lifted up in a chair in the middle of the dance floor. Looking down, he saw his uncle smiling up at him. His cousin looked up in reverence and adoration. His parents wore proud smiles.

The "Bar” or “Bat Mitzvah," or "son” or “daughter of the commandment” in Aramaic, the mother language of Hebrew, is a Jewish religious ceremony that recognizes boys as men at age of 13 and girls as women at 12.

The tradition dates back to as early as the sixth century C.E. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs originally developed as a public recognition of one’s legal and religious status, but it was not until the Middle Ages that a fully developed ritual emerged. During the third century C.E, the custom was changed so that a girl could receive the same celebration at 12 years old.

Around 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. Though the tradition is old, Grob-Lipkis tied his Jewish heritage with a modern-day casino theme to highlight the start of his adulthood.

Before a child reaches Bar Mitzvah age, parents are held responsible for their child's actions. After this ceremony, the new “adults” are said to bear their own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition and ethics, and are regarded as ready to observe religious precepts and eligible to take part in public worship.

“Bar Mitzvahs are cool because it’s when I became a man, according to Judaism, so several relatives got me masculine gifts like pocket knives, which was very different,” Grob-Lipkis said.

Preparation for the event can require years of learning to read and sing hymns in Hebrew. Senior Aaron Vogel practiced his Hebrew with a tutor twice a week for two years, and Grob-Lipkis studied for nine months before his Bar Mitzvah.

The long study period pays off in the week of the ceremony, when the 12- or 13-year-old leads the Shabbat services at their synagogue for that week. He or she gives a speech about a specific portion of the Torah, a series of five books scripting the law of God, including its personal importance and relevance in modern society.

That evening, relatives of the speaker host the Bar Mitzvah party. The eldest family member recites prayers and blessings over “challah,” a braided bread made with eggs and yeast dough that is served along with extravagant foods.

Family and friends present gifts, often themed around reaching adulthood, such as Swiss Army knives and shaving kits.

Eighteen is a lucky number in the Jewish community, coming from the 18th letter, which means “life” in Hebrew. Grob-Lipkis enjoys the money and gifts that come in increments of 18, as more and more money is accumulated this way.

The preparation for the ceremony is not only a significant learning experience, but it also fosters appreciation for the Jewish culture.

“The whole process meant a lot to me,” Vogel said. “My dad got Bar Mitzvah’d, my grandpa got Bar Mitzvah’d. Almost all of my relatives have gotten one. I felt like I was finally a part of something my entire family is.”