From the age of thirteen and onwards, a boy is considered a man and is thus obligated in all mitzvot.1 On his thirteenth birthday, the young man is called a "Bar Mitzvah," which literally translates as: the Son of the Mitzvah.2

This is derived from the biblical verse3 that says that Shimon and Levi took their swords to kill the inhabitants of the city of Shechem (as punishment for the abduction and violation of their sister Dinah). When describing this, the Torah says ish charbo, "each man took his sword," implying that they were considered men4 at that point5; and at that point in time, Levi had just turned thirteen.6

Some say that the age of bar and bat mitzvah is a tradition handed down from Moses at Sinai.7

Calculating the Bar Mitzvah Date

One becomes bar mitzvah at the onset (at nightfall8) of their thirteenth (Jewish) birthday, regardless of the time of day he was born.9

If a child is born during bein hashmashot (the time between sunset and the emergence of three stars), at which time we don’t know whether it’s still considered the day beforehand or the following night, he becomes obligated to observe all of the mitzvot on the earlier day,10 and that is when he celebrates his bar mitzvah.11

Calendar Issues:

  • A boy born in the month of Adar of a non-leap year celebrates his bar mitzvah in the second Adar, if his bar mitzvah year is a leap year.12 Nevertheless, there are some halachic authorities that maintain that the bar mitzvah should be celebrated in the first Adar. In order to satisfy this opinion, the boy should put on tefillin starting from the date of his birthday in the first Adar.13
  • If a boy was born in Adar of a leap year, and the bar mitzvah is also on a leap year, the bar mitzvah is celebrated on the date as he was actually born on.
  • If a boy was born on the thirtieth of Cheshvan or Kislev, and on the year of his bar mitzvah, no such day exists (see here for the explanation for this phenomenon), he becomes bar mitzvah on the first day of Kislev or Tevet respectively.14

The New Rights of the Bar Mitzvah Boy

As a result of being considered an adult, the bar mitzvah boy is enabled to perform and/or participate in the following rituals:

  • Lead prayer services (as chazzan).15
  • Be counted as a member of a minyan.16
  • To bless the congregation with the Priestly Blessing if he is a kohen.17
  • To serve as reader from the Torah at public Torah readings.18
  • To receive an aliyah.19
  • To lead the Grace after Meals (known as zimun) and count as one of the three people required in order to do a zimun.20

The Bar Mitzvah Boy's Responsibilities

From the day of the bar mitzvah and on, the young man is obliged to do all of the mitzvot of the Torah. These include: donning tefillin21 and fasting on communal fast days.22

In addition, as an adult, a young man becomes responsible not only for his own actions but also for the actions of all of his fellow Jews.23 This concept is called arvut, or shared responsibility. Click here for more information on this topic.

The Aliyah

The bar mitzvah boy is honored with an aliyah at the first opportunity, indicating that he's reached adulthood.24 It is Chabad custom that this aliyah should not be on Shabbat morning.25

After this aliyah, the father recites a blessing thanking G‑d for now exempting him from punishment as a result of his son's negative actions.26 He's no longer obligated to educate the boy to do the mitzvot, rather the boy is now responsible for himself.27 In most communities (including Chabad) this blessing is recited without explicit mention of G‑d's name, as this blessing is not mentioned in the Talmud.28 The text of the blessing is ברוך שפטרני מענש הלזה. Ba-rooch she-pi-tuh-ra-nee mai-o-nesh ha-la-zeh. ("Blessed is He who has released me from being punishable for this [boy]").

In many communities it is customary for the bar mitzvah boy to publicly read from the Torah. I heard in the name of Rabbi Nevenzohl, rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, that this is to train the young man in the mitzvah of reading from the Torah. Some say that this custom has no source and is not necessary to follow.29 The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes30 that in preparation for accepting "the yoke of mitzvot," the bar mitzvah boy should spend time studying the fundamentals of Judaism, including the laws regulating daily life. Studying to read from the Torah is time consuming and not nearly as important as the above studies. It's therefore preferable not to spend the time preparing the Torah reading, but rather on the more important studies.

The Bar Mitzvah Celebration

It is a mitzvah to arrange a feast on the day of the bar mitzvah, to celebrate the boy's new obligation to fulfill all of the mitzvot.31 In Talmudic times we already find that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai made a feast for his son, Rabbi Elazar, on the day of his bar mitzvah.32 Although it is best to make the feast on the bar mitzvah day (or night33), if the feast is not on the actual bar mitzvah day, but the boy recites a Torah thought, it is still considered a mitzvah feast.34

One who is unable to make a full celebration on the day of the bar mitzvah, and is therefore celebrating it some days later, should at least make a small celebration on the bar mitzvah day itself.35

It is customary for the bar mitzvah boy to share a Torah thought at this celebration.36 I heard from my teacher Rabbi Chaim Shalom Deitch, dean of the Tzemach Tzedek Kolel in Jerusalem, that the speech's purpose is to educate the new bar mitzvah boy in the important mitzvah of teaching Torah to the public. The bar mitzvah boy often speaks in the synagogue after the Torah reading.37

It is Chabad custom for the bar mitzvah boy to recite a maamar (Chassidic discourse) that relates to the mitzvah of putting on tefillin. The maamar that is customarily recited starts with the words "Ita b'Midrash Tillim," and was first recited by the fifth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, on the occasion of his bar mitzvah. Click here for the text of the mammar.

The origins and customs of the bat mitzvah will, G‑d willing, be discussed in a future article.