There is a prevalent custom for boys to read the weekly Torah portion when they become a bar mitzvah.

But although a boy who reaches bar mitzvah is supposed to be called up to the Torah, and in fact, his being called up to the Torah takes precedence over almost all others,1 there is no obligation for the bar mitzvah boy to be the one who actually reads from the Torah, a.k.a. the baal koreh.

That said, for centuries, various communities have had this custom.2 In fact, Rabbi Yaakov Moelin, known as the Maharil (1365–1427), records that his own son read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah.3 However, it was never something that “everyone” did. Rather, only those who showed an aptitude for it would learn to chant the Torah for their bar mitzvah.4

He Is a Man

Somewhat ironically, while the underlying reason for having a child read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah became less relevant, the popularity of this custom has increased tremendously, especially in America.

As mentioned, a boy is supposed to be called up to the Torah for his bar mitzvah. One of, but certainly not the only reason for this is in order to publicize the fact that the child is now considered an adult and is obligated in all of the mitzvahs.

Now, technically, according to some opinions, under certain circumstances and for certain aliyot—especially for maftir—a child can be called up to the Torah. Therefore, since in previous generations, they would occasionally give a child an aliyah,5 calling up a bar mitzvah boy for an aliyah did not necessarily signify that he had reached bar mitzvah age.

However, to actually read from the Torah and fulfill the obligation for the congregation, one always had to be bar mitzvah. Therefore, those who had the aptitude would actually read from the Torah, as it certainly publicized the fact that he had become bar mitzvah.6

Nowadays, however, we don’t call up to the Torah anyone under bar mitzvah. Therefore, a bar mitzvah boy’s aliyah itself adequately publicizes the fact that he has reached bar mitzvah age and is now obligated in all mitzvahs like any other adult.7

Relegating Primary Events to Secondary Status

It is important to bear in mind that in essence, a bar mitzvah marks the point in time that the boy receives all the rights, responsibilities and obligations of a Jewish adult in regard to performing the mitzvahs (which is what “bar mitzvah” means).

As such, the most important preparations for a bar mitzvah is to actually learn the fundamentals of Judaism and the Jewish laws that he will be obligated to fulfill.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe would often bemoan the fact that people make the “principle secondary and the secondary a principle.” Although it is true that in previous generations some learned to read from the Torah, the Rebbe emphasized that (a) it was never something that everybody did, and (b) nowadays, things are different. In previous generations, boys were generally immersed in a Jewish environment and spent their days learning Torah. Thus, those who had the aptitude and were able to easily learn how to read their Torah portion did so as a bonus. And even then, this was only done in their free time and in addition to their regular Torah learning schedule.

Nowadays, however, many boys aren’t spending their days learning Torah (e.g., a good portion of the day is spent learning secular studies, together with other pursuits), and when it finally comes time to prepare for their bar mitzvah, instead of learning the how and why of Judaism, they spend the bulk of their time studying their Torah portion (and often they memorize just that portion and are unable to read a different Torah portion in the future). Therefore, although learning to read from the Torah may have merit, learning the fundamentals of Judaism and basic Jewish law has even greater merit.8