The clearest and most explicit recognition of thirteen as the age when a child was considered to be a fully responsible member of the community is the statement in the Talmud: “At age thirteen one becomes subject to the commandments.” (Avot 5:21) In fact, that is the meaning of Bar Mitzvah: son of the commandment. In the tradition, this was the moment when children reached legal adulthood. They could make vows (promises) they were obligated to keep; they could sign contracts; they could marry. They could do everything any other adult could do, including the ability to participate in and lead worship services. But just as adulthood brought on many privileges, it also carried certain obligations. In the Jewish mind, no obligation was more important than the responsibility to fulfill the commandments as described in the Torah and interpreted by the rabbis. Therefore, ceremonies developed which recognized this special moment in a child’s life, when s/he begins to respond in a personal way to the laws and traditions of Judaism. We celebrate the fact that this child, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, is now responsible for his/her own actions regarding Judaism. Thus, according to tradition, a parent recites the following benediction: “Blessed be God who has freed me from responsibility for this child’s conduct.”
Realistically speaking, though, a thirteen-year old child is not an adult. S/he is not responsible for his/her own actions. Part of this change is due to the advancements in science and technology. A child in the 17th century had lived a third of his/her life by the thirteenth birthday. Today, a thirteen-year-old can look forward to 60, 70, or even 80 more years of productive living. Prior to our modern age, survival and necessity dictated that a child reach adulthood early. But now, we give childhood more time. Drivers’ licenses cannot be obtained until 16. A person can vote in government elections only at 18. Drinking laws establish adulthood at the age of twenty-one. We do not believe thirteen-year-olds to be responsible enough to handle these and other “adult” privileges and obligations.
Nevertheless, the tradition of Bar/Bat Mitzvah remains a strong part of our living heritage. Over the course of time, the ceremony has been re-invested with meaning, translating it into a moment of beginning. It marks the first time a child ascends the bimah, acting as shaliach tzibbur (leader of congregational worship), reading from the Torah and Haftarah, and offering a d’var Torah (interpretation of the Torah portion). Through these three acts, a child publicly announces his/her readiness to accept responsibility for his/her religious life. In truth, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony stands at the beginning of his/her religious education as an adult. S/he has proven himself/herself capable of mastering a foreign language and new traditions. S/he has committed himself/herself to a program of study covering a period of several years. S/he has expressed a true desire to become a child of the commandments and a member of the community.
Hopefully, from the time of Bar/Bat Mitzvah on, the child will focus increasingly on the fact that his/her life should be one supported by the Divine ideal and brought to fulfillment according to the Divine will.