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A 13-Year-Old Adult—Who Are You Fooling?

A 13-Year-Old Adult—Who Are You Fooling?

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Bar or bat mitzvah—the venerated rite of passage whereby a Jewish child enters adulthood, a milestone which is reached at the approximate age when the body reaches maturity. Yet most of us still consider adolescents to be emotionally immature, and regard them as “children” for quite some time after puberty. Society doesn’t trust the young teenager’s ability to discern between the wise and the reckless, and has legislated many laws to restrict them accordingly. The ability to operate an automobile, vote, or purchase an alcoholic beverage (legally . . .) are still distant dreams in the eyes of the new bar/bat mitzvah “adult.”

Why does Judaism consider a 13-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl to be full-fledged adults? What is there to be gained from blatantly disregarding reality?

Let us take a moment to analyze the difference between an adult and a child. The difference between the two is not a disparity in intelligence; a child can have a very high IQ, but he is nevertheless a child. Knowledge, too, is not what sets apart the adult from the child. A child prodigy who is proficient in the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica—actually, the modern geeky child is more likely to be versed in Wikipedia . . .—is still not held responsible for his actions. Rather, maturity is the ability to integrate acquired knowledge into daily life, and to use the information supplied by the brain to suppress the urges of the heart.

The difference between an adult and child is not a disparity in intelligenceIn short, the adult has the capability to make hard decisions based on his understanding of the consequences of intended actions. The child may understand the consequences of his actions in theory, but to the adult the consequences are real, not abstract. To use chassidic terminology: “The mind rules the heart.”

This is the inner meaning of the mitzvah of tefillin, the practice most strongly identified with bar mitzvah. The arm-tefillin are placed adjacent to the heart, and the head-tefillin are laid directly above the brain. The mind must constantly govern the heart, and both of them have to submit to a higher authority—G‑d’s commandments, which are described in the parchments within the leather boxes.

G‑d, the designer of Man, created a model which matures physically and emotionally at approximately the same time. By the time puberty arrives, the human is theoretically prepared to be responsible for his or her actions. These newly minted “adults” now have the necessary maturity to base their actions on rationale, rather than impulse and spur-of-the-moment whims. This is not only theory; this is actually the way things were until the middle of the 20th century. In the not-so-distant past, young adolescents got married and supported a family, successfully carrying out all the duties this entails.

And then things became good. Very good. So good, in fact, that parents who had difficult childhoods decided that they could afford better for their children. They rightfully resolved not to deprive their children of all the comforts which they had been denied as children.

This newfound affluence of society was a double-edged swordThis newfound affluence of society was a double-edged sword. On the positive side—aside from the physical benefits it afforded, such as previously unheard-of luxuries and vastly improved and widely accessible healthcare—it produced a generation of highly educated youth. Parents did not need their children to augment the family’s income, and could afford to allow them to study well into their teenage years, all the while providing loving and total financial support. The problem then arose that children started maturing at a much later age. Why should the child grow up before it is necessary? Do the teenager’s actions really matter? After all, no matter what he does on any given day—provided he doesn’t become a serial murderer—he can always count on a warm meal and shelter. Does anything really matter? Being told that his assiduous study today will profoundly affect his distant future is quite different than the reality of being fired for not arriving to work on time!

There’s no turning back the clock. It would be cruel for 21st-century parents to have their eight-year-old apprenticed to a blacksmith in order to teach the child responsibility! We thank G‑d for the bounty He bestows upon us—and at the same time, we should realize that this presents yet another challenge which we can, and will, overcome. Real preparation for bar or bat mitzvah must now start from a very early age, and involves actively searching for opportunities to teach our children the meaning of consequences for actions. It means resisting the natural parental urge to always be there to fix, clean, intervene, replace and resolve. It means establishing meaningful consequence systems, and not capitulating to skillful pleading and cajoling.

Perhaps we can’t change society singlehandedly, but we do have the ability to ensure that our children are properly prepared to be responsible adults when they reach the age of bar or bat mitzvah.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Mandy April 24, 2017

As I said before, girls start puberty at 8-12,but she will not reach the last stage of puberty until she's around 18. I'm sorry if I am repeating myself. The samething goes for boys. However,this doesn't mean that the mitzvah age has to change. :) Reply

Anonymous Holyland October 2, 2015

Are biologially kids not teens or adults but they have conscincious minds like adults. A human is a teen at the age of 15 and is biologicaly adult. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI April 30, 2013

13-Year-Old Adult? You're only a Jewish adult in the religious sense, which means you now have the same responsibilities as Jewish adults. Reply

Shoshana Mintz-Urquhart Silver Spring, MD January 24, 2013

becoming Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah I feel that becoming a Bar and Bat Mitzvah has more meaning when The Bar and Bat Mitzvah know that their whole community really cares about how they turn out and that they, the Bar or/and Bat Mitzvah cares about how the decent people in their communities and beyond (Jewish and non-Jewish) care about them. Also, as well as doing acts of Chesed, the newly Bar or Bat Mitzvah needs to be taught not to become arrogant or smug. Becoming arrogant and smug leads to apathy and unfairness and wasting one's education. Praying regularly especially in situations where there is a lack of good, kind role models. Reply

Anonymous February 26, 2012

being bar or bat mitzvah does not make you an adult, however it does make you a young man/lady! meaning you have to give the impression of what a proper young lady/man should behave like and not the opposite. Reply

rosa epelman alfano nazereth illit, Not in USA November 23, 2011

I believe that are some parents that don't let their children to live their ages according to the natural stages of development. They want that the children grow up faster in order to decline their care and responsibilities and say "you are old enough". Reply

Anonymous November 21, 2011

Excellent article I was always bothered by this, and I am positive that there are thousands of not millions of people, Jews and Non-Jews that are perplexed by this as well.

Thanks for the simple clarification. You write wonderfully. Reply

malka ny, ny November 20, 2011

As a teenage girl past the age of bat mitzva, I am very thankful that my parents are always here for me to help me out with my problems or in difficult situations and that they don't leave me to deal with it on my own. I am very thankful to know that my parents are always here for me. Reply

Donna Dallas, TX November 20, 2011

Not ready for an independent life I agree that it is wonderful that our children had more than we did, but at the same time many schools have taken real education out and are teaching to the test. They are no longer teaching real life skills and our children are totally unprepared for the real world. I teach in the public schools and am continually shocked at the lack of real teaching that goes on.

@Elizabeth. No one said anything about being "forced" to be Jewish. No one is. It is a choice for each individual. A child with a non-Jewish mother would need to go through conversion if they made that choice. Reply

john smith fort lauderdale, fl November 20, 2011

adult children just because there are MANY adult children who are in society and even may have a powerful position in society, does not give our children the right to look at these individuals and say....."you see.....other adults are doing it also," implying that they too must be considered an adult.
Pointing out bad behavior in others to justify their own bad behavior defeats the arguement.
My advice...NO MEDIA (including print) or limited amounts. Good role models start in the home. Reply

Elizabeth Madison, Wisconsin November 8, 2011

Bar/Bat Mizvah, being Jewish I have been told by several friends who had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers that the Jewish faith only passes down through the mother. So if the father is Jewish and the mother not, the child shouldn't be "forced" to be Jewish. Reply