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Bar Mitzvah: A History

Michael Hilton

Publication Year: 2014

The Jewish coming-of-age ceremony of bar mitzvah was first recorded in thirteenth-century France, where it took the form of a simple statement by the father that he was no longer responsible for his thirteen-year-old son. Today, bar mitzvah for boys and bat mitzvah for girls are more popular than at any time in history and are sometimes accompanied by lavish celebrations.

How did bar mitzvah develop over the centuries from an obscure legal ritual into a core component of Judaism? How did it capture the imagination of even non-Jewish youth? Bar Mitzvah is a comprehensive history of the ceremonies and celebrations for both boys and girls. As cultural anthropology informed by rabbinic knowledge, it explores the origins and development of the most important coming-of-age milestone in Judaism. Rabbi Michael Hilton has sought out every reference to bar mitzvah in the Bible, the Talmud, and numerous other Jewish texts spanning several centuries, extracting a fascinating miscellany of information, stories, and commentary.


Published by: Jewish Publication Society

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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p. vii-vii

List of Illustrations

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p. viii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This account could not have been written without the help and support of many scholars, libraries, and friends who have been kind enough to share personal reminiscences. In particular my thanks are due to my supervisor and guide, Dr. Sacha Stern at University College London (UCL); to scholar and academic Dr. Klaus Herrmann in Berlin; to my friend and ...

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pp. xi-xx

Laura Jean from Dallas, Texas, was twelve years old when she told her parents in 2003 that she would like a bat mitzvah: “She loved bat mitzvahs: the singing was “inspiring”; the parties were exciting; the attention, no doubt, was flattering. Why couldn’t she have one?”1 The problem was that she was Methodist, not Jewish. But she went ahead anyway and held...

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1. How Bar Mitzvah Began

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pp. 1-34

Abraham’s father, Terah, kept a shop to which customers would come to buy idols. When Terah was away, Abraham was left to mind the shop. One day he took a stick, broke up the idols, and put the stick into the hand of the largest one. When his father asked what had happened, Abraham replied that the big idol had smashed up all the little ones. Terah said this...

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2. How Bar Mitzvah Became Popular

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pp. 35-53

There is not even a hint of evidence of a celebration meal for the bar mitzvah from the 1280s until the mid- sixteenth century, a gap of nearly three hundred years. There are isolated reports of the synagogue ceremony but no mention of any kind of party. But we do know that bar mitzvah must have continued as a social occasion, for when we hear about it again, it...

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3. The Spread and Regulation of Bar Mitzvah

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pp. 54-73

In spite of Maharshal’s doubts about the celebration, within a single generation there is clear evidence that bar mitzvah had become an established custom. This was important because during the seventeenth century Poland had developed into the largest and most important Jewish community...

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4. Jewish Confirmation

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pp. 74-105

Early in the nineteenth century a new Jewish coming-of-age ceremony was invented in Germany, known as “confirmation.” Originally a graduation ceremony for a Jewish day school class, this soon came to be a synagogue ceremony, often held for a group at the festival of Shavuot and involving both boys and girls. This was the first time in Jewish history that any...

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5. Bat Mitzvah

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pp. 106-134

On March 28, 1922, Mordecai Kaplan, the rabbi of the new Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York, wrote in his diary: “Last Sabbath a week ago (Mch.18) I inaugurated the ceremony of the bat mitzvah at the S.A.J. Meeting House (41 W. 86th St.) . . . My daughter Judith was the first one to have her bat mitzvah celebrated there.”1 Mordecai Kaplan had no...

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6. Into the Modern Age

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pp. 135-159

The Jews of Yemen had no tradition of bar mitzvah at all prior to their emigration to Israel. Boys were called to the Torah when they were able to say the blessings, sometimes as young as six or seven.1 The Jews of North Africa (Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia) are unlikely to have encountered bar mitzvah before the nineteenth century. An account of ...

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7. Current Issues and Trends

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pp. 160-191

Not every Jewish family has two happy parents and their loving children. Bar and bat mitzvah are popular family celebrations taking place in a world in which family life has become increasingly stressful and more difficult and the definition of what constitutes a family have changed dramatically. David Grossman’s Hebrew novel...

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8. The Evidence Assessed

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pp. 192-226

Assessing evidence from history can never be totally objective: it depends on who you are and the era and culture in which you happen to live. This concluding chapter gives an academic assessment of the evidence so far presented and the reasoning behind my conclusions. Like every researcher, I have built on the work of those who have studied the subject...


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pp. 227-260


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pp. 261-266


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pp. 267-294


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pp. 295-318

Further Reading

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p. 319-319

E-ISBN-13: 9780827611665
E-ISBN-10: 0827611668
Print-ISBN-13: 9780827609471

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2014