Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter



Not Just Another Birthday

Michal Eisikowitz

Just a few generations ago, bas mitzvah parties were unheard of. What sparked the change, what poskim have to say about it, and meaningful ways to mark the occasion.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

birthday cakesThough bas mitzvah celebrations were unheard of only two generations ago, today, for the most part, they’ve become de rigueur. What changed? Renowned lecturer Rav Zev Leff starts by explaining that just a few generations ago, formal education was the exclusive domain of boys. Girls learned by osmosis, imbibing the powerful Torah undercurrents of the home with no need for desks, blackboards, or tests. When a girl turned 12, no outer accoutrements of the transition were needed — the change was in her blood.

At some point, though, when the weakened family unit could no longer provide that visceral education, girls began attending school. And paralleling this recent need for institutionalized education is the need for parents and schools to explicitly recognize the bas mitzvah milestone, conveying its deep significance in an outward way.

The notion of celebrating a bas (or bar) mitzvah makes its first appearance in the pages of the Gemara (Kiddushin 31a). Rav Yosef, an amorah who was completely blind, is recorded to have said: “If the halachah is that even blind people are required to do mitzvos, then I will joyfully celebrate — for the reward is that much greater!”

Based on the principle that you earn more merit for performing tasks which you are commanded to do (versus voluntary ones) because they’re harder to fulfill, later poskim stress that when a boy or girl reaches the age at which they become obligated in mitzvos, it is appropriate to celebrate.

If that’s the case, why the great disparity in excitement and hoopla between boys and girls, with bas mitzvahs generally being far more low-key than their masculine counterparts? “When a boy becomes responsible for mitzvos,” explains Rabbi Leff, quoting a teshuvah of Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l, “the change is obvious in the public sphere. He can lein, he can get an aliyah, there are numerous outward expressions of his becoming a mature member of the community.

“In contrast, a girl’s bas mitzvah milestone is largely internal, it’s a private, personal, transformation. Fittingly, the celebration is carried out more modestly, with less emphasis on external trappings.”

Rabbi Leff likes to sum it up like this: since a 13-year-old boy can now service the community, the community celebrates. But since a girl’s turning 12 doesn’t impact society-at-large — her fulfillment isn’t found at the bimah or the amud — the festivity includes a smaller circle of friends and family.

Is celebrating a bas mitzvah halachically permissible? There are three schools of thought:

  • Rav Ovadiah Yosef shlita and numerous other Sephardic poskim maintain that it is a mitzvah to mark the occasion, however, it can be celebrated privately.
  • Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l and others hold that it is not a mitzvah, but if done properly, it can be appropriate.
  • A minority of poskim allege that the celebration — in any form — is not permissible.

The wariness of this last group, notes Rabbi Leff, likely stemmed from the Reform and Conservative influences of the time. “Rabbanim were concerned that bas-mitzvah party-makers were simply mimicking these distorted models, where the bas mitzvah gala derives from their mistaken need to ‘equalize’ boys and girls. As Torah Jews, we believe it’s okay for girls and boys not to be the same, in fact, we embrace the difference.”

 

 To read the rest of this story, please buy this issue of Mishpacha. To sign up for a weekly subscription click here.

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.
CAPTCHA
Message


MM217
 
What’s in a Name?
Shoshana Friedman “What does Writer X have to say this week?”
Atonement — Fake and Real
Yonoson Rosenblum White confessionals and faux rituals
Four Walls Coming Full Circle
Eytan Kobre All the while, there’s been a relationship in the offing...
And Yet We Smile
Yisroel Besser We are the nation that toils to be happy at all costs
Out of This World
Rabbi Henoch Plotnick Dirshu Hashem b’himatzo — we are in Hashem’s company now...
Steven and Jonathan Litton
Rachel Bachrach The co-owners of Litton Sukkah, based in Lawrence, NY
Tali Messing
Moe Mernick Tali Messing, engineering manager at Facebook Tel Aviv
Sick Note
Jacob L. Freedman “Of course, Dr. Freedman. Machul, machul, machul”
Avoiding Health Columns Can Be Good for You
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman Only one reliable guide for good health: our Torah
Endnote: Side Notes
Riki Goldstein Most Jewish music industry entertainers have side profes...
Me, Myself, and Why
Faigy Peritzman Where there’s no heart and no love, there’s no point
Can’t Do It Without You
Sarah Chana Radcliffe When you step up to the plate, you build your home team
Eternal Joy
Mrs. Elana Moskowitz The joy of Succos is the fruit of spiritual victory
The Appraiser: Part III
D. Himy, M.S. CCC-SLP and Zivia Reischer Make sure your child knows his strengths
Hidden Special Needs
Rena Shechter You won’t see his special needs, but don’t deny them
Dear Wealthy Friend
Anonymous There’s no need for guilt. I am truly happy for you