Bar and Bat Mitzvah are two of the most common phrases one hears about Jewish practices. Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah are Hebrew (actually the word “Bar” is Aramaic, all the rest are Hebrew) words that mean “Son of the Commandment” and “Daughter of the Commandment” respectively.
Judaism is a religion of Mitzvot, “Commandments” or “obligations.” It is, for example, a mitzvah to say a blessing both before and after eating. It is a mitzvah to say a blessing upon awaking and before going to sleep at night. It is a mitzvah to give charity, and so forth. At the age of 13, a Jewish child is deemed old enough to take on the religious responsibility of the mitzvot. Hence, becoming a Son or Daughter of the Commandment means that from this point on, the child is considered a religious adult with all the responsibility or obligation that implies.
The practice of Bar Mitzvah began in the early Middle Ages. Over time it has evolved into the ceremony we observe today. In the early 20th Century, Bat Mitzvah, for girls, was introduced by Reform Jewish movement (more about Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism in another column). The Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony revolves around the reading of the Torah. The Torah is the scroll upon which is written, in Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Traditionally, we read from the Torah during our Shabbat (Sabbath) morning service on Saturday mornings. We also traditionally read from the Torah during morning services on Mondays and Thursdays. During the reading from the Torah on Shabbat, the young boy or girl is called to read from the Torah publically before the congregation for the first time. It is this act by which one becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In many congregations, sweets are gently tossed at the new Bar/Bat Mitzvah as a reminder that Jewish learning is an ongoing and “sweet” avocation.