Dear Rabbi Fried,
I’ve heard all the jokes about the bar mitzvah being more bar than mitzvah, but what is the actual meaning of the term “bar mitzvah?”
I hope with this we’ll set a new “bar” in your understanding of bar mitzvah.
The word “bar” is an Aramaic word meaning “son,” hence bar mitzvah means the “Son of Mitzvos.” This describes the state a young man has become in Jewish thought and law. A bar mitzvah is not simply the celebration of coming of age, of becoming an adult. It is the celebration of the responsibility and eligibility to partake in the mitzvos as one who is obligated to do so, not as one doing so as merely a trainee. From this point on, the young man’s mitzvos become complete, with the minimum level of true understanding and concentration deemed necessary as an adult, thinking Jew. One more soldier has been inducted into the Army of G-d, performing his (or her, on the occasion of a bas mitzvah) unique role in Klal Yisrael.
When we discuss a young man with his father and praise the boy as being “his father’s son,” we mean he’s following in his father’s footsteps. We recognize the father’s good qualities, maturity, compassion, good nature and often his mannerisms and sense of humor in his son, “a chip off the ol’ block.” This type of praise brings the father much nachas. Similarly, when we call a boy a “bar mitzvah,” the son of the mitzvos, this means that, besides his father, this young man is following in the footsteps of the mitzvos, learning from their compassion, depth, direction and understanding of the world and his part in it.
On one level, this coming of age happens whether the boy did something to prepare for it or not, like any other birthday. The obligation to fulfill mitzvos falls in place whether the boy was called to the Torah, said a speech, or not. Hence, the term “to be bar mitzvah-ed” is not entirely accurate; one is “bar mitzvah-ed” automatically on becoming thirteen and one day.
On another level, however, the affect of the bar mitzvah is profoundly connected to the extent the boy prepares himself. The Kabbalistic sages explain that a bar mitzvah is the boy’s spiritual bris milah, circumcision. When a male baby is eight days old, he enters the covenant of Abraham by undergoing his bris. It is performed on the eighth day, as the number eight in Judaism represents a transcendent state of being (going one beyond seven, which symbolizes nature, i.e. seven days of the week).
A bris is something that others perform upon the baby boy; he did nothing to participate in this mitzvah from the perspective of his own choice, consciousness and understanding. The foreskin, or orlah, represents the “foreskin upon the heart” spoken about by the prophets, which seals off the heart with its impurity. The first stage of removing that layer from the heart is the bris.
It is incumbent upon the boy himself to complete this process. During the next 13 years, he is taught Torah and performs mitzvos. With each word of Torah and mitzvah he is striking at the “spiritual foreskin” upon the heart, the Orlas Haleiv, weakening it with every blow. If the boy worked hard at that process, on the actual day of the bar mitzvah, the day he becomes 13 and a day, the Orlas Haleiv is dealt its final blow and is removed, the spiritual side of the original bris now complete. At that point the “evil inclination” which seeks to block the heart is cut away, leaving the boy free and complete to begin his growth unbridled, to develop into a pious, scholarly and righteous Jew. This is especially appropriate as we celebrate our beloved son Shlomo’s bar mitzvah this weekend. May all Jewish boys experience that profound spiritual ecstasy, enriching themselves and the entire Jewish people!
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 email@example.com.
Dear Rabbi Fried,