An adult Jew is obligated to obey the mitzvos—the commandments—and is held responsible for his or her actions. A child is not. At what point does a child become an adult? According to Jewish law, the age of majority—when a minor ceases to be a minor—is twelve for a girl and thirteen for a boy. At this point the child becomes a bar or bas mitzvah—“one who is commanded”—a person who is bound by the laws of the Torah.
The law that a Jew becomes an adult at the ages of twelve or thirteen is not to be found in the actual text of the Torah. Nevertheless, it is a Torah law with equal stature to all the laws of the Torah. The technical term for such a law is a halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai—a law from Moses at Sinai—a product of the authoritative Oral Torah which God gave to Moses at Sinai together with the Written Torah. It is this Oral Torah—which is largely recorded in the Talmud and related works—that distinguishes Judaism from the various man-made religions that are loosely based upon Scripture. It is significant that the very essence of one’s status as a Jew—a person who is bound by the laws of the Torah—is dependent upon a law derived from the Oral Torah. When we celebrate a bar or bas mitzvah, we are also confirming our faith in the Oral Torah.
Technically, no celebration is necessary for a child to become a bar mitzvah. There is no actual ritual of bar or bas mitzvah; one does not become “bar mitzvahed”. In this respect, the bar or bas mitzvah is significantly different from the various other life-cycle celebrations of Judaism, such as the bris milah (circumcision), pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born son), and marriage. Despite this, the practice of celebrating the arrival of a Jewish child into adulthood—becoming a bar mitzvah—is a very ancient custom.
The commentaries tell us that the joy of the bar mitzvah celebration is based on the important Talmudic principle, “Greater is he who does what he is commanded to do, than he who does what he is not commanded to do.” The Talmud tells us that there is greater virtue in performing a mitzvah that one is obligated to perform, than one which one is exempt from. Thus, although a Jewish child may be fulfilling many mitzvos, it is only as an adult, when he or she becomes obligated to obey the mitzvos of the Torah, that the true virtue of the mitzvos can take effect. It is this change in status that we celebrate.
This somewhat counter-intuitive principle, that the obligatory performance of a mitzvah is of greater virtue than a voluntary act, points us to an important concept in Judaism. The essential virtue of the mitzvos is precisely that they are commandments—laws that we are obligated to obey. Although most of the mitzvos are subject to human understanding, in that we can provide some explanation for why God has commanded us to perform these given acts, such an understanding is secondary to the essence of the mitzvah. Our primary goal in obeying the mitzvos is simply to obey the will of God.
One of the classic difficulties in religious philosophy is understanding how it is possible for a human being—a finite, limited, physical being—to achieve a true connection and unity with a God Who is infinite and incomprehensible. In Judaism, this connection is called devekus and is described as the essential goal of all the mitzvos. The mitzvos are a gift to us from God that enable us to achieve this otherwise impossible union. When God commands us to perform a given act, even one as corporeal as eating a festive meal on the Sabbath, He has invested that act with His Will. Thus, when we perform that physical act, we achieve a connection with the Will of God.
We say in the Shema, “Hashem Echad”—“God is one.” This basic principle of Judaism, the absolute unity of God, tells us that God has no parts; He and His Will are one. When we achieve a connection with the Will of God, we are connecting to God Himself. This is only possible because God has connected the given act with His Will. This is the essence of the mitzvah concept. An act that is not commanded by God, as positive as it may be, is ultimately a finite act that cannot, in of itself, achieve devekus—true union with God. Thus, many commentaries connect the word mitzvah with the Aramaic term “tzavsa” – “binding” – because the mitzvah binds us to God.
When a Jewish child enters adulthood and becomes obligated to obey the mitzvos, it becomes possible for him or her to truly connect to God. It is this which is the source of our joy when we celebrate a bar or bas mitzvah. It is therefore important that the tenor of our celebration reflect this.