THE JEWISH LIFE CYCLE
By Steve Israel
B: PRIMARY TEXTS
The Stages of Life According to Judaism
The Difference Between Before and After – The Stage of Responsibility
Thirteen – A Time of Moral Development
Mitzvot According to Development – The Other Point of View
An Early Coming-of-Age Custom
The Source of Tefillin
The Congregation’s Blessing
The Father’s Blessing
A Father’s Responsibility
Letting the Children Go
The Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s Blessing
Girls and Torah – The Controversy
Ostentatious Bar and Bat Mitzvah Celebrations
Reaching Out to the World
Judaism Without G-d? The Need for a New Framework
This section offers collected texts from the background section of the chapter, together with some additional texts and commentary that are relevant within the context. These extra texts can be used as the basis of further activities, either individually, or in juxtaposition to the other texts, in order to further enrich the activities. The headline for each text includes a reference to the corresponding item in the background section of this chapter.
15. The Stages of Life According to Judaism [
He used to say: At five years old one is fit for the Scripture, at ten years for the Mishnah, at thirteen for the fulfilling of the commandments, at fifteen for the Talmud, at eighteen for the marriage canopy, at twenty for pursuing [usually understood as pursuing a calling], at thirty for authority, at forty for discernment, at fifty for counsel, at sixty to be an elder, at seventy for grey hairs, at eighty for special strength, at ninety for bowed back and at a hundred a man is as one who has already died and has passed from the world.
Mishnah: Pirkei Avot 5:21
16. The Difference Between Before and After – The Stage of Responsibility [
A girl eleven years and one day – her vows must be examined [to see if she understood the significance of what she was doing]. If she is twelve years and one day her vows are valid...
A boy twelve years old and one day – his vows must be examined. If he is thirteen years and one day old, his vows are valid…
When they are younger than this, even though they say, “We know in whose name we have vowed it”… their vow is no vow. But when they are older than this, even though they say “We know not in whose name we vowed it”… their vow is a valid one…
Mishnah: Niddah 5:6
17. Thirteen – A Time of Moral Development [
The impulse to evil is thirteen years older than the impulse to do good. It begins growing with a child in the mother’s womb and comes out with him. If the child is about to profane the Shabbat, it does not deter him: if the child is about to commit an act of unchastity, it does not deter him.
Only at the age of thirteen is the impulse to good born in a child. If then he is about to profane the Shabbat, it warns him: “You fool! Scripture states, ‘Everyone that profanes [the Shabbat] shall surely be put to death’”. If he is about to take a life, it warns him: “You fool! Scripture states, ‘Whoever sheds a man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.’”…
Avot de Rabbi Natan 16
18. Mitzvot According to Development – The Other Point of View [
In part one of the chapter we mentioned that there was a counter tendency in Judaism that stressed the need to perform mitzvot as soon as a child was ready, without waiting for the thirteenth year. The following Talmudic source is a classic example of this tendency.
Our masters taught: A child who knows how to shake the lulav [on the holiday of Sukkot] is required to use the lulav. If the child knows how to wrap himself in a tallit, he is required to do so. If a child knows how to take care of tefillin, his father must acquire tefillin for him [and he must put them on]. If he knows how to speak, his father must teach him Torah…
Bab. Talmud, Sukkot 42a
19. An Early Coming-of-Age Custom [
There was a good custom (
) in Jerusalem. When a boy was twelve years old his father would take him and bring him before every elder [a term of respect] that sat in the Temple, in order that they should bless him, strengthen him and pray that he should attain a life of Torah and good deeds…
20. The Source of Tefillin [
Therefore put these words of Mine upon your heart. Bind them as a sign upon your hand and let them be a reminder between your eyes. Teach them to your children.
21. The Congregation’s Blessing [
As mentioned, many congregations will give a blessing to the Bar Mitzvah as he is called to the Torah. Some congregations will give a standard blessing given to all who are called to the Torah, adding in the words bar mitzvah. Non-Orthodox congregations tend to give a more developed blessing.
Here are two different versions of such a blessing. The first is taken from “Sim Shalom”, the prayer book of the American Conservative movement. The second version is taken from HaAvodah ShebaLev, the prayer book of the Israeli Reform movement. Both books have an identical version for boys and girls, allowing only for changes of gender in the language. The first text is the girl’s version, while the second is the boy’s version.
22a. May He who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless ------- who has come for an Aliyah upon reaching the age of Mitzvot. May the Holy One guard her and sustain her, helping her to be wholehearted in her faith, studying G-d’s Torah, walking in G-d’s ways and fulfilling His mitzvot. May she find favour before G-d and all people. And let us say Amen.
Siddur Sim Shalom
22b. May He who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, bless ----------, who enters today into mitzvot as he comes up to the Torah in front of the eyes of the congregation of Israel. May G-d give a blessing to his family. As they succeeded in raising him to mitzvot, may they succeed in educating him to the values of Torah, marriage and good deeds. May it be the will of our Father in Heaven that he should succeed in devoting himself to the Torah with a healthy body and a perfect soul, and find favour and good sense in the eyes of G-d and man alike. May his family look on and find joy and friends be delighted and the whole house of Israel rejoice as they see their children among them hallow the holy of Jacob and adoring the G-d of Israel.
Translated from Siddur HaAvodah ShebaLev
22. The Father’s Blessing [
This blessing appears in an interesting excerpt from the midrashic work, Bereishit Rabbah, which opens with a general observation regarding the age of thirteen as a critical age for deciding on a direction in life.
Rabbi Levi said: It is like the case of a myrtle and a bramble that used to grow one on the back of the other, but as they grow and flower one gives forth its scent and the other gives forth its thorns. In this case, two boys go to school and come from school, but when they are thirteen years old, one goes to the study house and the other goes to houses of idol worshippers.
Rabbi Elazar said: A man must look after his child for thirteen years and after this he must say, “Blessed be He who has acquitted me of the punishment for this one i.e. my son who is now bar mitzvah.”
Bereishit Rabbah 63
23. A Father’s Responsibility [
If we say that a father is released from responsibility for his son when the boy reaches the age of thirteen, we must ask whether the tradition relates to the obligation of the father, up to that time. There is an interesting source on this subject in the Talmud.
A father is obligated towards his son (in the following ways). He must teach him Torah, he must teach him a skill (profession) and there are those who say that he must teach him to swim (i.e. give him basic survival skills).
Bab. Talmud, Kiddushin 29a
24.Letting the Children Go [
The whole issue of finding the balance between providing parental support, on the one hand, and allowing the child to go forward towards independence, on the other, is fraught with difficulties. Below are two observations among many on the subject.
The first refers to a parent’s role and comes from the writings of the great Jewish thinker, Martin Buber,in the form of a comment by Buber on a verse from the Song of Moses in Devarim, which talks about G-d’s relationship with Israel.
The second piece is a Chassidic source, referring to the relation of teacher and student, through a reflection on the parent-child relationship.
24a. “Like an eagle who awakens the young in his nest, he will glide down to his young, so did He spread His wings and take him, bearing him along on his wings.” (Devarim 32:11).
In the nest are nestling the young birds that only recently have sprouted wings. But they do not yet know how to rise up and fly. And here comes the eagle and awakens the nest. He encourages the youngsters to fly, and glides above them with a light beating of the wings. Then he spreads his wings and sets one of the young birds on his wing and carries him skywards, throwing up and catching him: in this way he teaches him to fly.
24b. Rabbi Leib said: “When a child is taught to walk, his parent holds his hand at first; then he allows him to walk alone, but stands nearby; then he goes further and further away from him, until at last the child becomes accustomed to walk steadily on his own feet. In the same fashion, the former Bar Mitzvah boy should have his teacher’s close attention at first; then he should be permitted to lead himself more and more.
25. The Bar and Bat Mitzvah's Blessing [
The Reform movement has introduced a statement that is made in front of the congregation by the bar or bat mitzvah. The following formulation is from the prayer book of the Israeli Reform movement, HaAvodah ShebaLev. The versions are identical for boys and girls, allowing only for changes in gender in the language. This is the version for the Bat Mitzvah.
My G-d and the G-d of our fathers,
Before this holy congregation I choose to be counted in the congregation of Israel, an heir to its heritage, a partner in its fate, and obligated by its commandments. Give me the strength to walk in Your path and to be a source of pride to my family, my community and my People…
26. Girls and Torah – The Controversy [
Judaism has long been ambivalent – and often downright negative – regarding the question of encouraging girls to learn Torah. One of the classic sources that shows this ambivalence perfectly is found in the Mishnah.
Ben Azai said: A man must teach his daughter Torah…
Rabbi Eliezer said: Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah – it is as if he is teaching her obscenity.
Mishnah Sotah 3:4
Since the Talmudic era, there have been many discussions on the role of women in Torah study.
There were always a few unique women who became Torah scholars, from Beruriah in the time of the Mishnah, to Professor Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997), who revolutionized and popularized the study of the weekly Torah portion.
In the twentieth century, the Hafetz Hayim, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1933), who was the foremost rabbinical authority in pre-war Europe, advocated basic Torah study for women, in order to retain and encourage their religious commitment, and gave his blessing to the Beth Yaakov school system for girls. This was an innovation in orthodox religious life.
The late Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the acknowledged leader of Centrist Orthodoxy in the United States, similarly encouraged Jewish women to pursue advanced Torah studies.
Today, there are many institutions that offer programs in Torah learning to women in all ideological streams of Judaism in Israel and the Diaspora.
27. Ostentatious Bar and Bat Mitzvah Celebrations [
This is the first part of the exchange of letters between the two girls that we quoted in part one of the chapter, which appeared in the “The Jerusalem Report” in August 1999.
Bigger celebrations are not always bad. Being a religious Jew doesn’t just mean celebrating Shabbat at home; sometimes it is done in the presence of a large congregation. Torah scroll covers are ornamented in rich and intricately hammered silver, out of respect for the value of the contents. The finest silver Kiddush cup doesn’t diminish the spirituality of Shabbat.
I believe that a large and lavish bar or bat mitzvah can not only add to the religious aspect of the ceremony, but complement Jewish tradition.
The person who is becoming bar or bat mitzvah should feel good about themselves and their religion. It’s also wonderful to celebrate such an occasion with all friends and family, not only close relatives.
If the parents have the wherewithal, why shouldn’t they make it more special? The cost and the number of people can add pressure on the bar or bat mitzvah, but is that in itself bad? The occasion celebrates a coming of age, an assumption of adult responsibilities. Dealing with pressure is part of that change.
My bat mitzvah party was not formal or lavish. I invited only my close friends from school.
You can have a small, inexpensive celebration; the important thing is that close family and friends attend. If you have a huge party, that’s what is going to be on everyone’s mind, rather than the tradition. The main point of this simcha is for people to see the first time a child reads from the Torah, not the party.
And inviting too many people can also be a problem. The extra people might not know you as well and might not be respectful to what is going on during the service. I know that is true for me, because I go to a public school where most of the kids are not Jewish. So, it’s better to just invite the people who know you very well, and not the extras.
These huge celebrations add nothing to the experience.
“The Jerusalem Report” August 2, 1999
28. Reaching Out to the World [
The child, discovering his I [identity], comes to know that he is limited in space: the adult, that he is unlimited in time. As man discovers his I, his desire for eternity guides his range of vision beyond the span of his own life. Stirred by the awesomeness of eternity, this young person feels within himself the existence of something enduring. He experiences it still more keenly at the hour when he discovers the succession of generations, when he envisions the line of fathers and mothers that led up to him… The people are now for him a community of men who were, who are and who will be – a community of the dead, the living and the yet unborn – who together constitute a unity… The past of his people is his personal memory, the future of his people, his personal task.
Martin Buber, Essays on Judaism
29. Judaism Without G-d? The Need for a New Framework [
Every religion has created factors that evoke the emotions of holiness in the soul of the believer. It has holy persons, partly supernatural – like its G-ds and angels, partly invented human ones – like its legendary heroes, partly historical figures who actually lived, who through their lives and deaths expressed the truths of their faith. It has holy places – temples, mountains and valleys, holy springs and trees – so that the believer begins to have entirely different feelings when he steps into their proximity. It has holy objects – tallit and tefillin, scrolls of the Torah, icons, crosses etc. It has holy periods – holidays, fasts – and also holy actions – praying, bringing sacrifices, confessions and the like.
All these sanctities – persons, places, objects, periods and actions – act like a magnetic force on the soul of the truly religious person and transfer it into an emotional atmosphere which is impossible to express in words. The question now is; can all these sanctities evoke the same atmosphere in our feelings when we stop believing in their supernatural significance? Must modern man create entirely new sanctities in order that the emotion of holiness should shine forth in his breast?
“The National Poetic Rebirth of the Jewish Religion”