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A related question was posed earlier. It was: “My grandfather celebrated a second bar mitzvah. Can you explain the reason behind his doing so and if this is a ceremony expected of all Jews of a certain age?”, and the answers given can be found at:
From that question, you can see that it is possible to celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah after the normal age.
Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah, for a woman) is a phrase that indicates a change in status. The phrase Bar Mitzvah literally means ‘son of the commandments’ (Bat Mitzvah means ‘daughter of the commandments’), and implies that a person who has achieved that status is responsible for their religious behavior and choices, and is obligated to follow the commandments or laws set forth for Jews in the Torah. It is not an event or a ritual. The ritual and celebration that most people mistakenly refer to as the “Bar Mitzvah” event is unnecessary for the change in status to occur.
It simply happens; just as an American citizen who simply reaches their 18th birthday is automatically rendered eligible to enter into contracts, and on reaching their 21st birthday is rendered legally allowed to consume alcohol (in most jurisdictions). They need do nothing, there is no ritual, yet the change in status occurs on the passing of the date, whether they mark it or not.
Similarly, technically one becomes a Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah) on their thirteenth birthday (though some hold that as in past, for young women the age is twelve, as young women are understood to mature faster - certainly physically, and often emotionally as well; but this difference in age to mark the change in status is not universally accepted today; most Reform communities use the age of thirteen for both genders).
In Jewish law centuries ago, this change in status would coincide with becoming considered an adult, and eligible to marry and take on responsibilities in the community. Today we generally don’t believe that a thirteen year old is ready to be an adult in most ways, and we certainly don’t expect them to marry at that point, but we do feel that they are ready to become participating, responsible, and contributing members of their religious community.
The ritual, which does not cause, but celebrates this change in status, is a mutual understanding between the person and the community. On the one hand, the person is asking to be accepted by the community, and offering a demonstration that they are prepared for their role by being adequately educated and capable of contributing to the life of that community. The community, on the other hand, is recognizing their status, and welcoming that person as a full member, and offering them the highest possible honor by calling them up for an Aliyah (the honor of being called up to recite the blessings over reading the Torah), and by having them represent the community in worship by leading prayers for the community. An acknowledgement of the celebratory nature of the event is the seudah, or festive communal meal, that follows and celebrates the performance of a mitzvah or commandment, which often takes the form of a party, though it need not – it can be as simple as a glass of wine and a loaf of bread (usually challah – a braided egg bread), over which blessings can be recited.
The ritual is an acknowledgment and celebration of the change in status; it does not cause it, and is not tied to the change in status, so the ritual of celebration can take place at any time following the date of the status change. It is possible for a person who did not have an opportunity to celebrate their change in status to do so at any time. Thus, one can prepare for the ritual and celebrate whenever the opportunity and desire arise.
As a note: before about 75 years ago, there were no Bat Mitzvah celebrations; it was just not done, so that many women did not have the opportunity to celebrate (a trivia note: the first acknowledged Bat Mitzvah celebration was that of Judith Kaplan Eisenstein in the context of a Reconstructionist community). In the last twenty-five or so years, there have been many adult women who have chosen to prepare for and to celebrate their status as B’not (daughters; plural of Bat) Mitzvah.
Similarly, men who for whatever reason did not celebrate their status have had the opportunity to do so at a later date, and persons who were delayed for various reasons (health, ability, learning issues, or other) have celebrated at a time later than their 13th birthday. So, it is quite possible and acceptable to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah) at a time later than the 13th birthday of that person.
Rabbi Joe Blair
Answered by: Rabbi Joseph Blair