Sources for the Origin of Bat Mitzvah

1. Mishnah Niddah 5:6. This is the origin text for the correct age for bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah.

בַּת אַחַת עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה וְיוֹם אֶחָד. נְדָרֶיהָ נִבְדָּקִין. בַּת שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה וְיוֹם אֶחָד.נְדָרֶיהָ קַיָּמִין. וּבוֹדְקִין כָּל שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה. בֶּן שְׁתֵּים עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה וְיוֹם אֶחָד, נְדָרָיו נִבְדָּקִים. בֶּן שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה וְיוֹם אֶחָד, נְדָרָיו קַיָּמִין. וּבוֹדְקִין כָּל שְׁלשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה.

A girl eleven years old and one day, her vows must be examined. A girl twelve years old and one day, her vows are valid: they examine them all through the twelfth year (boys one year older).

2. Maimonides Mishneh Torah Hilchot Ishut 2:1 – 2

א הבת מיום לידתה עד שתהיה בת שתים עשרה שנה גמורות היא הנקראת קטנה

ב והבאת שתי שערות בזמן הזה נקרא סימן התחתון. ומאחר שתביא סימן התחתון תקרא נערה עד ששה חדשים גמורים, ומתחלת יום תשלום הששה חדשים ומעלה תקרא בוגרת.

1. From the day of a girl’s birth until she is twelve years old, she is called a katanah (minor.) 2. Growing two hairs at this age is called the lower sign. Once she brings this sign she is called a naarah (maiden) for six months. And from the day these months are completed and onwards she is called bogeret ( a mature woman).

3. Report from Berlin 1817. “Aus einem Briefe aus Berlin.” Sulamith  5.1, (1817), 279. Translation from Herrmann, “Jewish Confirmation Sermons in 19th-Century Germany, ” 103-104.

Dr. Kley from Hamburg confirmed two daughters of Jewish parents (Demoiselle Bernsdorf and Demoiselle Bevern) in the splendid BeerschenTemple here in an extremely ceremonial manner. A gathering of 400 people, as many as the temple could accommodate, dissolved—so to speak—into tears. All of those present were uplifted by the excellent sermon of this good speaker and by this solemn confirmation. The lighted lamps, the two girls, the first in Israel who have been confirmed, having passed their examination with the greatest praise: in short, everything made this one of the most festive and most beautiful celebrations.

 4. Verona Pasover 1844. Emma Boghen Conigliani, “Iniziazione religiosa delle fanciulle,” Vessilo Israelitico (1899), 185 ff., from http://digilander.libero.it/parasha/varie/batmizva/11.htm.

Naturalmente innanzi d’esser ricevute al tempio le giovanette debbono aver studiato l’ebraico, conoscere la storia sacra e il catechismo, perciò tutto non si riduce ad un giorno di festa lieta e commovente. Al ricordo della veste bianca e del velo candido simboleggianti la purezza di quegli animi ancora ignari della vita, del tempio illuminato a festa e ornato di fiori, della folla in cui passano, ricevute e accompagnate dai sacerdoti, è unito indissolubilmente per le fanciulle il ricordo delle cognizioni apprese, delle idee nuove e serie, cui la loro mente deve fermarsi. E poiché l’immaginazione e il cuore loro son profondamente tocchi, così più difficilmente andranno perdute quelle idee e quelle cognizioni; e neppure il tempo, che tante cose cancella, potrà cancellare nelle loro giovani menti la dolce impressione provata.

Naturally, before being received at the temple the young girls must have studied Hebrew, and have a knowledge of history and sacred catechism, so that not everything is reduced to a single happy and moving day of celebration. For the record—the white dresses and white veils symbolising the purity of those souls still unaware of life, the temple festively lit and decorated with flowers, the passing of the crowds, their reception and accompaniment by the priests—all this is inextricably linked for the girls to their memory of the knowledge they have learned, and of the new and serious ideas, which their minds must hold. And since their imagination and their hearts are so profoundly touched, it is so much more difficult for those ideas and knowledge to be lost. And not even time, which erases so many things, can wipe from their young minds the sweet impressions they experienced.

5. From British Library RB 23 A. 23383 (Various Pamphlets bound together in 2003)

Confirmation A Genuine Jewish Institution: A Sermon, delivered on yom rishon shel shavuot 5662 (24th May, 1852,) at the Solemnization of the First Ceremony of Confirmation In the Halliwell-Street Synagogue, Manchester, by the Rev. Dr. S. M. Schiller-SZINESSY, Local Rabbi.Manchester 1852,p. 6.

But now, my brethren, when has this ceremony, performed with respect to both sexes, been more desirable, nay, necessary, for the preservation of Judaism, than at the present time?  The Jewish male child is, on the eighth day of his life, received into the covenant of God; the child of eight days cannot possibly recognise the religion of God; for which reason our sages of yore were necessitated to introduce the ceremony of Bar-Mitzwah, to be observed when the child was thirteen years old, an age at which the youth generally left the roof of his parents. With the female part of the young this was less necessary, since Yisraelitish women were through the whole course of their lives confined to the house, and never came into contact with the outer world; they had for their position, religious education enough, if they only understood how to observe household ceremonies, and to repeat the daily blessings and prayers with the children.   Quite different are the circumstances of to-day.   On the one hand the Bar-Mitzwah ceremony, observed with respect to the male child, has dwindled to an empty form; and on the other hand, the female part of the Jewish community have demanded their full share in the employment of life, and have gained it. Now, with regard to the female part especially, [to whom in maturity is entrusted not only the ceremonial management of the household, but the much more important care of educating the rising generation] how are they to be interested in the Jewish religion, and inspired with love for it, if not by a thorough religious instruction, at the close of which stands confirmation?

 6. Rabbi Yosef Chayyim of Baghdad (1834 – 1909), Ben Ish Chai Vol. 1, Reeh 17. 

וגם הבת ביום שתכנס בחיוב מצות אע”פ שלא נהגו לעשות לה סעודה, עכ”ז תהיה שמחה אותו היום ותלבוש בגדי שבת, ואם יש לאל ידה תלבש בגד חדש ותברך שהחיינו ותכוין גם על כניסתה בעול מצות, ויש נוהגין לעשות בכל שנה את יום הלידה ליו”ט וסימן יפה הוא וכן נוהגים בביתנו

And also for a girl, on the day when she becomes obligated to perform commandments, even though it is not the custom to make a special meal for her, even so it is a joyful day for her and she dresses in her sabbath clothes, and if she is pious, she dresses in new clothes so she can say the blessing for happy occasions, and has in mind that she is at the gateway to the yoke of the commandments, and there are those who have the custom of making a party for her every year on the day of her birth, and this is a beautiful ritual and is the custom in our house.

7. 1893 Meir Friedmann (Vienna, 1831-1908, known as Ish Shalom), quoted from Golinkin, “The Participation of Jewish Women in Public Rituals,” 49.

Wouldn’t it be better to call up our girls as Bar Mitzvah to the Torah exactly like the boys? The impression and the effect will definitely be greater … As far as I’m concerned, calling women to the Torah today will not offend. On the contrary, Jewish domestic and community life will gain extraordinarily if the women will be deemed worthy of this religious practice. It goes without saying that one must erect a covered staircase directly from the women’s gallery to the bimah, so that those called up can ascend and descend without being seen.

8. Group Bat Mitzvah in Alexandria, Egypt 1901.From Dario Miccoli, “Moving Histories. The Jews and Modernity in Alexandria 1881-1919.” Quest: Issues in Contemporary Jewish History, Online Journal, 2 (October 2011).   http://www.quest-cdecjournal.it/focus.php?id=223

The ceremony mimicked the bat mitzvah many European Jewish girls had begun to celebrate in the nineteenth century. Like the boys’ bar mitzvah, which is centred on the reading of a portion of the Torah from the pulpit, the girls’ newly invented ceremony consisted in the recitation of some prayers and a few questions dealing with religious issues. The ceremony was a symbol of these girls’ emancipation and, in the Alexandrian case, it underlined the desire of local religious leaders to promote the idea that Judaism was a traditional belief system which could also play a central role in modern times.

Madame Danon [headteacher of the Jewish Girl’s Day School] was asked by Rabbi Hazan to help organize the ceremony, and soon after his request the woman started working on this engaging project: “I was at his complete disposal, and I gave him the programme of the ceremony as it is performed in Paris, as well as the text of all the various prayers….” Madame Danon’s enthusiasm convinced her entire prémière classe – attended by girls who were around ten or eleven-years-old – to take part in the ceremony which, as the teacher noted, not only implied learning the required prayers but also being able to afford the outfit the girls were to wear during the celebration. Among the required elements were a white dress, a veil, and a pair of gloves – all fitted for the occasion. Despite her efforts, the ceremony was for Madame Danon a complete disaster: “no flowers, no carpets, despite what we had decided, no reserved seats, and nobody to greet the notables, the synagogue was assaulted.” Luckily, Madame Danon’s fillettes were among the few praised for their conduct, clearly inspired by “our methodical instruction […] given by European teachers.”

9. Entry from the Diary of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan March 28th 1922, quoted from Ivan G. Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle (Seattle and London, 2004), 108.

Last Sabbath a week ago (Mch.18) I inaugurated the ceremony of the בת מצוה at the S.A.J. Meeting House (41 W. 86th St,)—about which more details later. My daughter Judith was the first one to have her בת מצוה celebrated there.

10. Further entry in diary August 1922 on holiday in Italy, quoted from Carole S. Kessner,“Kaplan and the Role of Women in Judaism,” in Mel Scult and  Robert Seltzer, eds., The American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan (New York and London, 1992), 351.

They call it entering minyan at the age of twelve. The ceremony consists of having the father called up to the Torah on the Sabbath that the girl becomes bas mitzvah. She accompanies him to the bima  and when he is through with the part, she recites the benediction of sheheheyanu . Before Musaph , the Rabbi address her on the significance of her entering minyan. On the Sabbath I was at the synagogue there were three girls and one boy who entered minyan.  The assistant Rabbi who was supposed to address them, read something out of a book in a very mechanical fashion. The fathers of the girls acted as if they were very infrequent visitors at the synagogue.

11. Mary Lowenthal Felstiner, To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Salomon in the Nazi Era (New York, 1994), 30 – 31.

Fränze Salomon’s holy day had been Christmas, when she sat at the piano leading “Silent Night.” Her fantasies featured angels and the bearded God of folk Christianity. Fränze’s parents were as German as could be, and practiced nothing Jewish,” a relative recalled; they loyally chanted “Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles” up through 1932.

When Paula Salomon-Lindberg took over Lotte’s home in 1930, things changed: To be Jewish meant to act it. She performed at the B’nai B’rith Lodge, a Jewish fraternal order which she and Albert supported for years. “Friday nights we lit Sabbath candles, Saturday morning and festival days we went to synagogue. Usually Albert had his work, but Lotte went along with me.” As Paula told it, every year people asked Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of Progressive Judaism in Berlin, “Where do you have a seat for Yom Kippur?” “Wherever Paula’s singing Kol Nidre, of course,”—the Jews’ holiest prayer. Under Paula’s influence Lotte even had a bat mitzvah, a modern ceremony in German, with her reading parts in Hebrew and writing her own speech.

12. Rabbi Harold Silver, “The Rabbi and His Congregation: “Today I am a Woman!””  CCAR Journal 9.4, (1962), 39-42.

Bas Mitzvah impels many of us, even against our wishes, to learn how to live self-respectingly and profitably with this new phenomenon in modern Jewish life… Of all the rabbis whom I contacted about Bas Mitzvah, only one openly and enthusiastically approved of the ritual…

Just when the rabbis believe that they have stemmed the tide somewhat in our movement today regarding the toning down of these wild Bar Mitzvah celebrations, the grim spectre of having to wage religious battle all over again with parents and their daughters is just more than the average rabbinical heart can take.

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