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.

The Fortunes of War
Rabbi Moshe Grylak We’re still feeling the fallout of the First World War
Some Lessons, But Few Portents
Yonoson Rosenblum What the midterms tell us about 2020
Vote of Confidence
Eyan Kobre Why I tuned in to the liberal radio station
5 out of 10
Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin Top 5 Moments of the Kinus
Day in the Life
Rachel Bachrach Chaim White of KC Kosher Co-op
When Less is More
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman How a good edit enhances a manuscript
It’s My Job
Jacob L. Freedman “Will you force me to take meds?”
They’re Still Playing My Song?
Riki Goldstein Yitzy Bald’s Yerav Na
Yisroel Werdyger Can’t Stop Singing
Riki Goldstein Ahrele Samet’s Loi Luni
Double Chords of Hope
Riki Goldstein You never know how far your music can go
Will Dedi Have the Last Laugh?
Dovid N. Golding Dedi and Ding go way back
Battle of the Budge
Faigy Peritzman Using stubbornness to grow in ruchniyus
The Challenging Child
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Strategies for raising the difficult child
Bucking the Trend
Sara Eisemann If I skip sem, will I get a good shidduch?
The Musician: Part 1
D. Himy, M.S. CCC-SLP and Zivia Reischer "If she can't read she'll be handicapped for life!"