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Bar Mitzvah: Obligation, Education & Action

Bar Mitzvah: Obligation, Education & Action

1915

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Facsimile of the personal diary of the Rebbe's grandfather transcribing the blessing of Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch ahead of the Rebbe's Bar Mitzvah. Courtesy of JEM.
Facsimile of the personal diary of the Rebbe's grandfather transcribing the blessing of Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch ahead of the Rebbe's Bar Mitzvah. Courtesy of JEM.

In Jewish law and tradition, the age of thirteen marks the onset of adulthood and the obligation to follow the precepts of the Torah. On a boy’s thirteenth birthday he becomes a “Bar Mitzvah,” which literally means “one who is commanded.”

According to the account of the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, both her husband and son took Menachem Mendel’s Bar Mitzvah very seriously. The Bar Mitzvah boy delivered a scholarly dissertation - a drasha - before the assembled guests, as is customary, and they were duly impressed by his eloquence and erudition. But more memorably, following the drasha he broke into heavy sobs. Some of the guests were so affected that they too could not hold back their tears. Rebbetzin Chana explained that her husband had demanded that her son make him a specific commitment, a solemn promise. But what the promise was she did not know. All she knew was that when her son ultimately made the commitment desired by his father, R. Levi Yitzchak celebrated with tremendous joy, dancing and singing late into the night.1

When her son ultimately made the commitment desired by his father, R. Levi Yitzchak celebrated with tremendous joy, dancing and singing late into the night.

Some insight into the solemnity with which the young Menachem Mendel approached his Bar Mitzvah can be gleaned from a letter that he wrote on the occasion of his cousin’s Bar Mitzvah in 1929. Addressing the young man, R. Menachem Mendel begins with a rhetorical question: Why is the day of one’s Bar Mitzvah not marked with festive sanctity akin to that of the Shabbat or a festival?

R. Menachem Mendel goes on to explain: “The reason for this phenomenon is because each one of us was not created for celebrations and festivals but for work and industry, ‘man was born to toil.’ The world is not a party house, man is not a guest dressed in Shabbat finery to attend a festive meal, and the days of his life are not Shabbats and festivals…. When he becomes obligated with the yoke of Torah and the commandments he should not make it a festival, but a day of activity and actual work.”2

At the end of this letter, as it appears in the Rebbe’s personal journal, are a few lines of cryptic citations and half completed notes. One of the references is to a Talmudic dispute about whether a boy who becomes Bar Mitzvah after Passover is obligated to bring a Passover offering one month later, on “the Second Passover.”3 Many years later, the Rebbe expounded on this theme, drawing attention to Maimonides’ apparently contradictory approach to this question and offering an explanation that became a cornerstone of his teachings on obligation, education and action:4

Our obligations to G‑d, society and ourselves, the Rebbe asserted, do not take effect in a vacuum, but within the wider context of responsibility and education. The very fact that you are obligated to follow the Torah’s commandments from the moment you turn thirteen, he argued, implies that even prior to that date you must take the requisite steps to ensure that your responsibilities will be discharged. The responsibility to pave the way for future obligations extends beyond the realm of education and into the realm of action. The responsibility to pave the way for future obligations extends beyond the realm of education and into the realm of action.Accordingly, the Rebbe explained, even before you turn thirteen you are empowered to offer a sacrifice on the first Passover and thereby discharge an obligation that will not come into effect for another month.

A responsible individual takes care to educate themselves about their obligations, so that they can take all necessary steps to ensure that their responsibilities will be actualized.5 Moreover, if something good can be done, it should be done directly. If something is truly important it should never be left until later. “Every moment upon this world,” the Rebbe taught, “is a loss that can never be returned… If you haven’t used that moment for what it could have been used to achieve, you have lost it… that moment is empty, and you haven’t lived it as you should have. Moreover, if you don’t grab the opportunity and directly take action, there is no guarantee that later there will be time to do it.’”6 Every moment holds the potential for eternal good, and it is our responsibility to actualize it.7

Footnotes
1.
Rebbetzin Chana’s account was recorded by N. Ben-Yochanan, Di ideshe heim, Kislev 5724, page 5.
2.
Reshimot (the Rebbe’s journals), Issue #59.
3.
Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 93a.
4.
Likkutei sichot Vol. 26, pages 69-76.
5.
Ibid. For further development and broader applications of this principle see also Likkutei sichot Vol. 17, page 70. For a different approach along similar lines see Likkutei sichot Vol. 35, pages 61-69.
6.
Sichot Kodesh 5737 Vol. 2, pages 195-196.
7.
Sichot Kodesh 5735 Vol. 1, page 184.
Eli Rubin studied Chassidic literature and Jewish Law at the Rabbinical College of America and at Yeshivot in the UK, the US and Australia. He has been a research writer and editor at Chabad.org since 2011, focusing on the social and intellectual history of Chabad Chassidism. Through his writing, research, and editorial work he has successfully participated in a range of scholarly interchanges and collaborative endeavors.
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Twenty-eight articles, each encapsulating a period of the Rebbe’s life, and highlighting key themes that distinguish his ideas.
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