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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.”


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