By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I hope you remember me. I’m Boris N. Today I was having a conversation with a friend regarding her son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. She and her family are not observant, and I was trying to explain to her the Baruch Shepatrani bracha recited at a bar mitzvah, just to realize that I really don’t understand the full meaning of this important blessing. I looked at my English siddur only to become more confused. I know you are the right person to help me understand and give the right perspective to help my friend. Also, I’m sure this will end up being a great subject for your readers.
Thank you so much for you help.
— Boris N.
It’s so nice to hear from you again and I hope you and your family are well.
The blessing you are referring to is: Baruch Shepatrani M’onsho Shelaze, or “Blessed are You who has exonerated me from the punishment of this boy.” This is the blessing recited by the father after his son’s aliyah to the Torah as a bar mitzvah.
There is a dispute among the authorities of Jewish law if this blessing is to be recited, since it doesn’t have a source in the Talmud. Consequently, we recite as cited above, without mentioning the name of G-d, in order to keep in mind all opinions.
The source of reciting this blessing is a Midrash. The verse says, concerning the development of Jacob and Esau, “and the boys grew up; and Esau was a man who knew how to hunt, a man of the field, and Jacob was a peaceful man, one who dwells in the tents” (Gen. 25:27).
The Midrash explains that “grew up” means they became bar mitzvahs at that time. Esau became a killer and an idol worshiper while Jacob followed in his father’s footsteps and became immersed in the study of Torah. It compares the brothers to a fragrant flowering bush that began to grow intertwined with a prickly thorn bush; when the two began to grow it was hard to tell them apart. Only when the two plants matured could one discern that from the flowery plant one could enjoy a fragrant smell while from the other all one could get was to be pricked by its thorns.
Similarly, when children are young it is often difficult to discern their distinct character traits; when they mature and begin to go out on their own, what they absorbed in their youth and where they are heading suddenly becomes quite clear.
The Midrash says that until the age of bar mitzvah, the parents are obligated in the teaching of their children and are responsible for their actions. From then on, as they become adults, they become responsible for their own actions.
In Judaism, every life stage ushers in a new level of responsibility; to become a “man” or a “woman” at the time of bar or bat mitzvah means to take on a new level of responsibility for one’s actions.
Therefore, says the Midrash, at the time of the bar mitzvah the father recites this blessing to thank the Al-mighty for bringing his son to this new level of responsibility, while at the same time freeing him for direct responsibility for those actions as he has been responsible up until this stage of his son’s life.
This does not at all mean that the father who recites this blessing is now freed from furthering his child’s education, as a mensch and as a Jew. It means that now that obligation has now entered a new stage of development. Up until the bar mitzvah the obligation upon the parents is to build the ground-level foundation upon which will be built the rest of the child’s life.
From then on, and throughout life, we need to continue to nurture and enhance the lessons and principles which were the building blocks of that original foundation.
Until the time that foundation is completed, we, the parents, are halachically, by Jewish law, deemed responsible for their every action as the child is not yet considered to have a mature mind of their own.
After the bar mitzvah, when they enter adulthood, the child assumes his or her own responsibility for their actions which put them and their parents into a new stage in their relationship, both to each other and vis-a-vis religious responsibilities one to the other.
This is a cause for celebration; one that is marked by reciting the blessing thanking the Al-mighty for freeing us from this responsibility, effectively passing on the torch to the next generation.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.