Notes from Limmud 2007
How Barmitzvah Parties Began
Rabbi Dr Michael Hilton
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
Unfortunately, I appear to have lost the handout for this, which means I've lost much of the Hebrew, and some of the English, of the sources.
Origin of the Barmitzvah ceremony
All bar one of the texts below has been thought by one scholar or another to be the origin of barmitzvah.
Mishna, Avot 5:21
This is in the name of Yehuda ben Tema (2nd century), but is actually a later addition to the Mishna. It's also been attributed to Shmuel haKatan, who composed ברכת המינים.
He used to say: a son of five years [is ready] for Scripture, of ten years for Mishna, of thirteen for the commandments, of fifteen for Talmud. הוא היה אומר בן חמש שנים למקרא בן עשר למשנה בן שלש עשרה למצות בן חמש עשרה לתלמוד
If it's a Mishna, what on earth is it doing talking about the Talmud? [Hey, how come I've never noticed that before?] Either it's a much later text; or the word Talmud simply means study of rabbinic sayings not in the Mishna.
Is this a halachic text? No; it's an ethical text. Therefore this is probably not the origin of barmitzvah. Both in the Mishna and the Talmud there are many other dates given for acceptance of the barmitzvah, e.g.:
Three times a year shall all your males go before G-d. As soon as your son is old enough to walk holding your hand, he should be going with you.
Rabbeinu Gershom [who lived a thousand years ago] is the first text saying theshould be taken on at thirteen, and all other commandments too.
Midrash Bereshis Rabbah 63:10 (5th century)
Commenting on Gen. 25:27 "and the boys [Jacob and Esau] grew", it says, in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat (d. 279 CE):
R. Levi said they were like a myrtle and a wild rose bush growing side by side. When they attained maturity, one yielded its fragrance, the other its thorns. For thirteen years they attended school together, but after that one went to the House of Study, and the other to idolatrous shrines.
[Source not recorded in my notes]
Said Rabbi Eleazar*: A man must take responsibility for his son up to the age of thirteen years, and from then on he needs to say "Blessed is He Who has released me from punishment because of him."† א״ר אלעזר צריך אדם להטפל בבנו עד י״ג שנה מיכן ואילך צריך שיאמר ברוך שפטרני מעונשו של זה׃
* An important variant on the text reads R. Eleazar b. Shimon—the son of R. Shimon b. Yoḥai.
[† A parent incurs the Divine punishment for sins committed by their child whilst the child is a minor; once the child achieves ritual adulthood, the adult is released from such punishment.]
This became part of the Barmitzvah ceremony, and remains today for the father to say after the boy is called to the Torah. When is this done? Not necessarily on the birthday, but some time afterwards.
Now, is this text halachic? The speaker leans one way then the other. What this text doesn't tell us is whether anyone actually said this.
To get to the oldest account of this blessing being used, we go to23. This was first published in 1973; it's a small collection (two pages) of appended to two of the mediaeval MSS of the (one is in Oxford). Date of possible author Yeḥiel of Paris: around 1240. [It says] in the name of Yehudah b. Baruch, a teacher of Rashi who lived from 1040-1105:
If someone has a son and he reaches the age of thirteen years, the first time that he stands up in the congregation to read from the Torah, his father should say the blessing "Blessed are You, Eternal G-d, who has redeemed me from punishment because of him." And the Gaon R. Yehudah ben Baruch stood up in the synagogue and said this blessing the first time his son stood up to read from the Torah. And this blessing is obligatory. מי שיש לו בן והגיה לשלש עשרה פעם ראשון שעומד ...
This contains a little halacha. Note it does not say the first time the boy reads from the Torah, but the first time he did so after the age of thirteen. It was customary in those days for minors to read Torah and act as, particularly on . Later on, as the concept of barmitzvah developed, minors ceased performing these.
So who was this Yehudah b. Baruch? He's not mentioned in many sources. He was a student of Rabbeinu Gershom, the first great Ashkenazi figure; and a teacher of Rashi.
This is probably the earliest account we have of a synagogue ceremony to mark the coming of age. Therefore barmitzvah started as an Ashkenazi ceremony, and remained so for many centuries. It did not become institutionalised for several centuries either, after this.
Origin of the barmitzvah party
Note: people did not celebrate birthday parties until the time of Rashi; and in the whole period here [lacuna]
And the child grew, and was weaned: and Abraham made a great party the same day that Isaac was weaned. ויגדל הילד ויגמל ויעש אברהם משתה גדול ביום הגמל את יצחק׃
משתה obviously refers to an event involving drinking, not, primarily eating. משתה גדול is only otherwise attested in the Bible in Esther 2, for the feast Ahasuerus throws for Esther's coronation. The Midrash goes into great detail as to who was there—all the major royalties—Og [king of the Bashan], and Avimelech [the Philistine king of Gerar], and so forth.
This dates from the fifth century, but is traditionally thought to have been compiled by R. Hoshaiah, d. 350. It comments on Gen. 21:8 as follows:
R. Hoshaiah Rabbah said he was weaned from the evil inclination. The Rabbis said, he was weaned from his milk. ר׳ הושעיה רבה אמר נגמל מיצר הרע, רבנן אמרי נגמל מחלבו׃
This was published by Solomon Buber in 1894, and is said to date from the twelfth century. It comments on Gen. 21:8:
There are those who say he was weaned from an evil to a good inclination, and he was then thirteen years old. ויש אומרים שנגמל מוצר רע ליצר טוב, ובן י״ג שנה היה׃
This is a twelfth century text. Does this mean there were parties for thirteen-year-old Jewish boys in the twelfth century? Is this finding a source text for an extant tradition?
Hermannus Quondam Judaeus Opusculum De Conversione Sua, 71
The title of this text (ed. Gerlinde Niemeyer (Weimar, 1963), published English version in Karl Morrison, Conversion and Text, (Charlottesville and London 1992)) means "Little book about his conversion by Herman who was once a Jew." He'd been sent by his family to collect debts, and spent some time staying in a monastery, and ended up converting when he was thirteen. This text is the account of dream of his when he was thirteen, in 1120. In his dream the Roman Emperor Henry V appears to him, and gave him gifts—a white horse, a golden belt and a silk purse which held seven heavy coins. Judah receives the gifts, makes a speech of thanks, and accompanied the king to his palace:
where, as he dined splendidly with his friends, I reclined next to him, as if his dearest friend, and from the same bowl as he I ate with him a salad concocted from many herbs and roots. Ubi et splindide cum amicis suis epulanti proximus ego velut amicissimus eius accumbo et ex eadem secum scutella olus ex multigenis herbis radicibusque confectum manduco.
Some say he was having a salad because he was eating with the Emperor and wished to keep kosher. Did he have a barmitzvah party... or was he a deprived teenager having fantasy dreams?
Actually, dreams were a literary genre of the time (cf, frex, Abraham Ibn Ezra, who dreamed he had a Christian book in his house). At the end of the book he explains the dream, and it's heavy with Christian symbolism.
(Jerusalem 1996), 4
This book, by R. Avigdor, Vienna (1200-1275), is very obscure. There is a partially preserved comment on Gen. 21, of which only these words survive:
to make a party for his son when he is thirteen years old לעשות משתו לבנו ביום שהוא י״ג שנים
What reason would there have been to have thrown a party for a boy at that age, at that time? Answer: betrothal, and משתו לבנו is a custom used generally for wedding feasts. In northern France and the Rhineland, it was customary to marry off boys at that age; the boys were thirteen or fourteen, the girls were twelve. (In Poland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the same thing happened; and we have some accounts of how damaging it was: the boys ran away as they felt their parents were ill-treating them.)
The Zohar is difficult to interpret, but it is a rich source of the Israeli customs of that time.
זוהר חדש פרשת בראשית 10c (Margoliot), 18b (Bar Ilan)
This was composed around 1280, first printed 1597. In the name of R. Shimon bar Yoḥai, 2nd century CE. R. Shimon threw a party for the thirteenth birthday of his son Eleazar:
R. Shimon ben Yoḥai invited the scholars of the Mishna to eat at a great meal which he made for them, and filled all his house with expensive vessels; and seated the scholar on one side and he sat on the other side, and he was very happy. They said to him, "Why are you happier on this day more than on all other days?" He said to them, "Because on this day a holy and elevated soul descended with on four winged creatures to R. Eleazar my son, and at this party my happiness is complete."
Is this a barmitzvah? There was a scholarly debate here, between Israel Ta-Shma and Ivan Marcus. Marcus doesn't think any of these earlier texts are about barmitzvah texts. Ta-Shma disagreed, politely and briefly in English, and rudely and at length in Hebrew. Ta-Shma thought that barmitzvah parties derive from text 8, and 9 definitely in the Zohar. [Unfortunately I did not record source numbers before losing the handout, and I can't guarantee the above sources are comprehensive and in order.] But the speaker wonders if Eleazar in the above text was getting betrothed.
זוהר חדש פרשת בראשית 15d (Margoliot) 27a (Bar Ilan)
When a boy becomes thirteen it is a joyous time for the righteous:
What is a wedding? It is on a day when he is fit to perform the commands of the Torah, which is the joy of the righteous. And when does he become fit? Said R. Yitzchak, from thirteen years old and upwards, and on that day it is an obligation for the righteous to be joyous of heart, like the day when he comes up to the bridal chamber.
זוהר חדש פרשת משפטים 2: 97b-98a
What does the Holy Blessed One do to that soul? He brings her to His room, and gives her gifts and many presents, and adorns her with adornments from on high, until the time when he brings her to the wedding chamber in that son, when he is thirteen years old and over.
Sea of Solomon, by Solomon Luria (mid C16)
Finally, here, we have something definite. Most of this work has been lost, but the commentary on [Talmudic tractate] Bava Kamma survives. For the first time here, we have the phrase.
The bar mitzvah meal which the Ashkenazim make—apparently there is no greater meal of obligation than this, and its name proves it... It is not like the meal for a circumcision [lacuna]
The term "Ashkenazim" here means Germans. The speaker, a Polish Jew, has not necessarily seen a barmitzvah meal himself; he's talking about something they do over in Western Europe.
What's this about the establishment of a presumption? What is the Maharshal worried about? He's talking about physical maturity. According to some of the Talmudic texts, in order to have that responsibility to carry out the commandments, you must have some degree of physical maturity. If you're still prepubescent, you shouldn't be throwing a party to show you're now responsible for the commands. It does't matter that you're taking services in shul; you're not able to be a man in Jewish law.
A century later Magen Avraham ruled that barmitzvah could take place at the age of thirteen whether or not the boy showed the right physical signs. (They found a halachic workaround: maybe the boy had grown hairs in the right place, but they had dropped out.)
Within a generation of this text we have clear evidence for the arrival of the barmitzvah in Poland, in the תקנות of the community of Krakow. We know this from their rule-book, which limits the number of guests, and the presents that can be given, and says gifts of wine and honey can be given to the barmitzvah teacher.
Neue Frankfurter Jüdische Kleider-Ordnung (The New Frankfurt Jewish Clothes Regulations), 1715
No barmitzvah boy may stand before the Torah scroll wearing a wig. He should not distribute nor send round gingerbread* nor distribute shirts and collars. To the cantor, who has taught him his portion, he can give him a collar, and nothing more.
* [There was an interesting linguistic tidbit here; but I must have scrawled it down on the handout. :-(]
Which does tend to suggest, if people kept this law, that the chazzan would have had an awful lot of collars! Which raises the question about how many people actually kept this law. The rules here suggested that barmitzvah parties were already going on; but it doesn't say that everyone was having one. The speaker suspects that barmitzvah did not become universally practised until the nineteenth century.
Finally, there is no evidence that any Sephardim celebrated their barmitzvah during the periods of the texts above. The Sephardim were practising it by the nineteenth century, and they did not practise it quite the same—the custom of reading מפטיר and הפטרה was not prevalent. In Morocco they had it at the age of twelve. In Yemen it was not celebrated until within living memory.