What’s the difference between a Bar & Bat Mitzvah?
Are there any similarities between them?
What do the words “Bar Mitzvah” and “Bat Mitzvah” even mean?
OK OK, enough with the questions. Let’s start getting some answers…
Table of Contents
Bar Mitzvah vs Bat Mitzvah: In a Nutshell
A Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah is the Jewish coming of age. Boys become a Bar Mitzvah when they turn 13 years old, girls become a Bat Mitzvah when they turn 12 years old (13 in Reform Judaism).
The term Bar Mitzvah is made of 2 Hebrew words:
- Bar (בַּר) = Son
- Mitzvah (מִצְוָה) = Commandment (or laws)
“Son of commandment”?
Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it (that’s not proper English, either)?
Well, in rabbinical usage, the word “Bar” has a different meaning: “subject to”. Add that with “commandments”, and you get “subject to commandments”.
The same goes for girls: “Bat” technically translates to “daughter”, but in rabbinical usage – it means “subject to commandments” (in female form).
Contrary to popular belief, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not an event or ceremony, it’s a designation of responsibility. The moment a Jewish boy/girl reaches their coming of age – they become subject to the Torah’s commandments (Mitzvot), regardless if they had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony or party.
That’s right – they become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah whether they celebrate it or not.
In other words:
- A Jewish boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah the moment he turns 13. A Jewish girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah the moment she turns 12 (13 in reform communities)… even if they don’t read from the Torah.
- Jewish kids don’t need a party (let alone a flashy party) to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
These are both Bar & Bat Mitzvah customs, not commandments.
Speaking of customs…
Bar Mitzvah vs Bat Mitzvah: Different Customs
A Bar & Bat Mitzvah share a lot of the same customs:
- They both usually celebrate their Bar/Bat Mitzvah: whether it’s in the form of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah party, a Kiddush luncheon or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah trip
- Both of them usually give a Bar/Bat Mitzvah speech
- They tend to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah candle lighting ceremony, where they invite some of their guests to light a candle
- Many of them choose a Mitzvah Project (although it’s more common among Bat Mitzvahs)
That said, they also have exclusive customs:
The Bar Mitzvah Ceremony & Torah Reading (Aliyah)
I briefly mentioned that a Jewish boy isn’t technically required to publicly read from the Torah (that’s called Aliyah by the way) to become a Bar Mitzvah.
If you’ve got a sharp eye – you probably noticed I didn’t say anything about a Bat Mitzvah reading from the Torah.
That was no accident…
In traditional Judaism, only Jewish men are allowed to read from the Torah. That’s why in Orthodox communities, only boys publicly read from the Torah and do an “Aliyah”.
In conservative and reform communities (and increasingly in modern Orthodox communities), however, that’s not the case. In these communities, Bat Mitzvah girls also participate in an Aliyah and read from the Torah, just like boys do.
Did You Know? Many modern Orthodox communities have sparked up a new conversation surrounding this whole subject.
They asked Orthodox rabbis to re-examine the Jewish customs concerning Bar & Bat Mitzvah and demanded an “equal playing field”, so to speak.
Their main critique is since the Bar Mitzvah ceremony isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Talmud – there’s no reason to prevent a Bat Mitzvah from having her Torah reading. should progress with modern times and match the current social landscape – where both men & women are treated equally.
Tallit & Tefillin
Well, guess who’s considered a man now? (at least from the Torah’s perspective… physically, the kid might still be 4’11 like I was when I was 13).
Note: Except for (most) Ashkenazi men. They start wearing a Tallit only after they get married.
And because these Mitzvot are reserved only for men, a Bat Mitzvah doesn’t follow them.
Except: In conservative and reform communities, the Bat Mitzvah girls wear a Tallit as well.
Are these the only commandments that differ between a Bar & Bat Mitzvah?
Let’s have a look (Hint: Not exactly) …
Bar Mitzvah vs Bat Mitzvah: Different Commandments & Responsibilities
When a Bar/Bat Mitzvah reaches their coming of age – they’re now responsible for their own actions.
Did You Know? In fact, before the Bar Mitzvah reads his Torah portion, the father actually recites a blessing thanking G-d for relieving them from the burden of his son’s sins.
And while Jewish men & women are required to follow many of the same Mitzvot (such as observing the Sabbath, eating Kosher, praying…), there are some Mitzvot that are gender-specific.
Male-only Jewish commandments include:
Note: In conservative and reform communities, women follow some of these commandments as well.
Receive an Aliyah
The boy had his first Aliyah at his Bar Mitzvah service. It probably wouldn’t be the last. An adult man can now receive an Aliyah every time we publicly read from the Torah (on Saturdays, Mondays, Thursdays and Jewish holidays).
Participate in a Minyan
A minyan is a quorum of 10 men required to fulfill certain Jewish obligations, such as public prayer, reading from the Torah and reciting the priestly blessing.
Publicly read from the Torah
The young man is reading his Torah portion in the public service. He can now do it over and over again, perhaps even become a Hazzan.
Leading the prayer service
Not only can he participate in a Minyan, but he can also lead the Minyan’s prayer service. Many Bar Mitzvah boys these days train how to lead the entire service, as opposed to just recite a Torah portion and chant the Haftarah.
Wear Tallit & Tefillin
We already covered that one 🙂
Aside from the genderless Mitzvot, Jewish women are required to follow 3 additional Mitzvot:
1. Lighting Shabbat & holiday candles
2. Kneading Challah
In Judaism, women are given a key role in shaping the values of the family.
Kneading Challah (and recites the Challah blessing) represents a woman’s unique ability and responsibility to shape raw material given by G-d – into something meaningful… just as she does with her family.
Niddah are the laws related to maintaining “Taharath Hamishpacha” (family purity).
Bar Mitzvah Gifts vs Bat Mitzvah Gifts
The moment the young Bnai Mitzvah have been waiting for (c’mon, who are we kidding): the gifts!
At the end of the day, boys will be boys teenagers will be teenagers. And just as you’d give non-Jewish 13-year-old boys & girls different gifts, you’d give Jewish boys and girls different gifts.
What sort of gifts, you ask?
Appropriate Bar Mitzvah gifts include things like:
- Traditional Jewish gifts: like a Bar Mitzvah Tallit, bible set or Kiddush cup.
- Personalized & Meaningful Gifts: Like this personalized Bar Mitzvah remembrance plaque (this is one of my favorites).
Common gifts for a Bat Mitzvah are things like:
- Bat Mitzvah Jewelry: gifts like a gold Star of David necklace or a Shema Yisrael bracelet are lovely.
- Traditional Jewish gifts: a pair of Shabbat candlesticks, a Challah board or a Kiddush cup are all wonderful ideas.
What if you can’t decide on a gift for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah?
In that case – get the Bnai Mitzvah money in multiples of $18, and let them decide what to do with it.
Tip: Money is a good idea especially if you don’t know the Bar/Bat Mitzvah very well, or if you attend a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in specific communities where monetary gifts are the norm (like in Israel)
As we’ve seen – both a Bar Mitzvah & Bat Mitzvah are considered adults. The difference is in when each is considered an adult: the Bar Mitzvah celebrates his coming of age when he’s 13, the Bat Mitzvah when she’s 12 (in reform communities girls also celebrate at 13).
But the biggest difference lies in their different rights and responsibilities required by Jewish law.
Hope this article cleared things up 🙂