a generic image of a girl reading from the Torah

If her Hebrew isn’t up to snuff, can bat mitzvah wait a year?

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My daughter recently turned 12. She has been in Hebrew school for years and we were planning to have her bat mitzvah next year, when she turns 13. However, it has become evident that she is having some difficulty grasping the Hebrew reading that will be required of her. Perhaps having a bat mitzvah in a year’s time might be pushing it. Is it OK if we wait until she turns 14? — Mac

Dear Mac: It is important to recognize the rituals currently associated with bar and bat Mitzvah are not prescribed in the Torah, Mishnah or Talmud. The first written references to the bar mitzvah ceremony appear around the Middle Ages (and make no mention of chopped liver sculpture).

Before that time, an adolescent of 13 was simply expected to follow the mitzvot prescribed for all Jewish men, thus automatically becoming bar mitzvah (a “son of the law”). Jewish girls were expected to observe the commandments and their obligations to Jewish law, which did not did not include certain prayers and rituals around reading Torah, at age 12. In neither case was a ceremony needed.

Of course, as you know, things are different today. In Conservative and Reform communities, boys and girls are expected to come to the Torah on Shabbat, participate in many aspects of the service, and read the day’s haftorah. In Orthodox communities, only boys participate in this way.

What is important for you to remember, Mac, is that bar and bat mitzvah signify not an individual achievement, much less one deserving of a five-figure, Golden Gate Warriors-themed soiree, but rather a welcoming into the community of a young man or woman.

The very definition of a bar or bat Mitzvah, whether achieved simply by aging or through a more modern ceremony, is one who participates in his or her community. Thus, as participation in a modern Jewish community — in your community — entails reading from the Torah in front of a crowd, it is quite understandable you would want your daughter to participate as capably and fully as she is able.

We’ve all been to ceremonies where the bar/bat mitzvah stands before the assembled like a prisoner of war reading a prepared statement. Where is the meaning in that?

Your daughter should be encouraged to prepare as thoroughly as she needs so that the occasion is comfortable and meaningful for her. By all means, wait until age 14 if that works for her. In the meantime, be sure to teach her what it means to be part of a Jewish community and that her bat mitzvah ceremony is a beginning, not an end.

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at [email protected].