Thirteen years is the age at which the Jewish male becomes bar mitzvah ("son of commandment"). At this point in his life, his mind attains the state of daat--the maturity of awareness and understanding that makes a person responsible for his actions. From this point on he is a "man," bound by the divine commandments of the Torah, individually responsible to G‑d to fulfill his mission in life.

The age of daat is derived from Genesis 34:25, in the Torah’s account of the destruction of the city of Shechem by Shimon and Levi in retaliation for the rape of Dinah. The verse reads: "On the third day... Jacob's two sons, Shimon and Levi, Dinah's brothers, each man took his sword, and confidently attacked the city..." The term "man" (ish) is used to refer to both brothers, the younger of whom, Levi, was exactly thirteen years old at the time.1 Thus we derive that the Torah considers a male of thirteen years to be a "man."2

But the context in which this law is derived is surprising. Shimon and Levi’s act seems hardly an exemplar of daat; indeed, Jacob denounced their deed3 as irrational, immature, irresponsible and of questionable legitimacy under Torah law.4 Yet this is the event that the Torah chooses to teach us the age of reason, maturity, responsibility and commitment to the fulfillment of the mitzvot!

The Foundation

As Shimon and Levi replied to Jacob,5 the situation that prompted their action did not allow them the luxury of rational consideration of its consequences. The integrity of Israel was at stake, and the brothers of Dinah could give no thought to their own person—not to the jeopardy of their physical lives, nor to the jeopardy of their spiritual selves by the violence and impropriety of their deed. In the end, their instinctive reaction, coming from the deepest place in their souls—deeper than reason, deeper than all self-consideration—was validated; G‑d condoned their deed and came to their assistance.6

This is the message that the Torah wishes to convey when establishing the age of reason and the obligation of mitzvot. Rare is the person who is called upon to act as did Shimon and Levi. This is not the norm; indeed, the norm forbids it. But the essence of their deed should permeate our rational lives. Our every mitzvah should be saturated with the self-sacrifice and depth of commitment that motivated the brothers of Dinah.7