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Why Are Bar and Bat Mitzvah at 13 and 12?

Why Are Bar and Bat Mitzvah at 13 and 12?

And why do boys lag behind by a year?

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Question:

I know that a girl has her bat mitzvah on her 12th Hebrew birthday, and a boy has his bar mitzvah when he turns 13. Why are these two ages designated for this milestone, and why do boys lag behind by a year?

Reply:

The ages of 12 and 13 are around the time when most young adults typically begin to physically mature and reach puberty.1 Additionally, when a boy turns 13 and a girl turns 12, they are considered to have reached the “age of maturity,” a time when they have developed enough understanding to be responsible for their actions. Therefore, they are called a bar/bat mitzvah, which literally means a “son/daughter of the commandment,” or a “man/woman obligated to do mitzvahs,” since they are now responsible for keeping the Torah and its mitzvahs.

The Torah Sources

Some explain that, like most other halachic measurements, the fact that the age of maturity is 12 or 13 is simply an oral tradition that G‑d imparted to Moses on Mount Sinai (commonly called Halachah L’Moshe MiSinai).2

Others explain that this is derived from the Torah’s account of the destruction of the city of Shechem by Simeon and Levi in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah. The verse “On the third day . . . Jacob’s two sons, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each man took his sword and confidently attacked the city . . .”3 The term “man” (ish) is used to refer to both brothers, the younger of whom, Levi, was exactly 13 years old at the time.4 This is the youngest age at which someone is referred to as a “man” in the Torah; thus, we derive that the Torah considers a male of 13 years to be a man.5 6

The Feminine Advantage

Just as a boy is considered to be a man at the same time that he generally begins to experience physical maturity, a girl generally matures more quickly, and is therefore considered to be a woman earlier as well—i.e., when she turns 12 years old.7

According to some explanations in the Talmud, this feminine advantage can be inferred from the Torah’s description of the creation of the first woman, Eve: “The L‑rd G‑d built the side that He had taken from man into a woman, and He brought her to man.”8 The word translated as “built,” vayiven, can also mean “and He gave her understanding,” implying that G‑d created a woman in such a way that she reaches mental maturity earlier than a man.9

Food for Thought

A bar mitzvah is not a graduation, when we celebrate an accomplishment of the past. On the contrary, it is a beginning. It is the start of an adult life, in which one more Jewish person will serve G‑d using his or her newfound wisdom to make the world a better, more G‑dly place.

Mazal tov!

Footnotes
1.
According to Jewish law, a child becomes an adult only when they reach the age of bar or bat mitzvah and also show the signs of physical maturity that normally happen at this stage (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 55:9, and Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 55:12); see Maimonides, Laws of Ishut, ch. 2, as to what these signs are. For matters of rabbinic nature (for example, being called up to the Torah or being chazzan), we consider a 12- or 13-year-old an adult—on the presumption that most boys that age have physically matured (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 55:5, and Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 55:6). In matters of Torah obligation, however, it’s necessary to ensure that the child has reached puberty.
2.
Responsa of Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel (Rosh) 16, and Responsa of Maharil 51.
4.
See the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Reshimot, no. 21, for a fascinating calculation of how we know that he turned 13 on that exact day.
5.
See Rashi on Talmud, Nazir 29b, s.v. v’Rabbi Yossi, and Machzor Vitri on Ethics of Our Fathers, end of ch. 5.
6.
For more on this, as well as a fascinating life lesson that we learn from this, see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 5, pp. 150–162; see also An Unreasonable Source.
7.
See Talmud, Niddah 45b.
9.
Talmud, ibid. See also Maharsha, Tosefot ha-Rosh, and other commentaries ad loc.

This follows the opinion that the first human “entity” was comprised of both female and male joined back to back. The creation of a woman was accomplished by separating the halves of this first human (Genesis 2:21–22 and Rashi ad loc; see also Talmud, Berachot 61a and Eruvin 18a). Seemingly, this “building” is superfluous. if both man and woman were two sides of the same entity, then just as man didn’t require any further “building” after the separation, so too woman should not have required it. Therefore, the rabbis explained that it refers to wisdom, as explained.

Others are of the opinion that Eve was created either from Adam’s “tail” or from an extra “rib” (see, for example, Genesis Rabbah 17:6). However, although they disagree on how Eve was created (and the meaning of the verse), they don’t necessarily disagree that women mature earlier.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Yehuda Shurpin (author) September 10, 2015

Re: Mitzvot before Bar Mitzvah The Zohar tells us that the angles carry the Torah of the children, children who by definition have no sin, up to the highest of supernal worlds. And the Talmud tells us that this world only exists by virtue of the Torah that comes from the mouths of children who study Torah. In short, the Torah and Mitzvot done by a child not only sustains the world, but stand in the child's merit for all time. Reply

pesach September 7, 2015

mitzvot before barmitzva What happens to mitzvot a boy did before bar mitzva? Reply

Achael Ben Uriel Sinai June 30, 2015

My Bar Mitvah Thanks for the enlightening and refreshing article!!! The picture is so rad. My Bar Mitzvah at age 13 was celebrated on an airplane from California to Virginia where my parents lived apart, divorced, unfortunately. I had never seen a Hebrew letter before in my life nor knew a single Hebrew word or even that this was a special day in Judaism. My real Bar Mitzvah occurred when I was 46 and my hormones changed from female to male. Thank G-d for the new study called Neuroscience. I am working on a BS at Columbia University to get this degree now. I am also studying in a Sefardic synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. Baruch Hashem. Reply

Anonymous May 31, 2015

This explains a lot of questions I had too! Thanks! Reply

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