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Responsa in a Moment
Vol. 16, No. 3
What is the origin and history of the Bat Mitzvah ceremony?
By Rabbi David Golinkin
In honor of the 100th Anniversary of
Judith Kaplan’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony
Question: In your recent “Shavua Tov @ Schechter” video on Parashat Vayakehel, you state: “As you may know, in a few weeks, we will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first Bat Mitzvah — Judith Kaplan the daughter of Rabbi Professor Mordechai Kaplan — which took place on March 18th, 1922.” As much as the Judith Kaplan Bat Mitzvah has all the publicity in terms of being “the first girl to celebrate becoming a Bat Mitzvah,” I think that you would find that this might really only be true if you qualify it with the additional words “in the United States”. And to boot, Judith’s Bat Mitzvah did not include a full Aliyah in that she did not read from the Torah itself, but rather, from a Chumash, although that is a detail… [See] MyJewishLearning.com – Lifecycle: History of Bat Mitzvah (archive.org) which describes some of the precedents for Rabbi Kaplan’s not-so-revolutionary event. In addition, apparently, Bat Mitzvah was not uncommon in 19th century Italy and Iraq.
Responsum: Indeed, much has been written about the history of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, yet much of what has been written is not accurate. Since I recently published a lengthy monograph about the history of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah from its medieval origins until 2020 (1), I will reply to your question with a slightly revised version of one section of that article.
There is a vast amount of literature about the Bat Mitzvah ceremony.(2) Therefore, I would like to focus on four specific topics:
I. The pre-history of the Bat Mitzvah ceremony before 1922
In his book Bar Mitzvah, Michael Hilton devotes all of Chapter 4 to Bat Mitzvah, yet almost all of the ceremonies he describes beginning in 1817 are group Confirmation ceremonies for girls, usually on Shavuot,(3) not individual Bat Mitzvah ceremonies in which the girl has a se’udah or reads from the Torah or Haftarah on a Shabbat in close proximity to her 12th birthday.
As far as I know, there are only five sources which discuss something akin to Bat Mitzvah before 1922, but most of them do not hold up to careful scrutiny. As I have explained elsewhere, Rabbi Avraham Musafiyah (Split?, mid-nineteenth century?), wrote in an unpublished responsum that
He who makes a se’udah on the day that his daughter reaches the age of mitzvot, i.e., 12 years and one day, it seems to me that it’s a Se’udat Mitzvah like a boy at 13 years and one day, for what is the difference? And this is a correct custom, and so do they make a Se’udat Mitzvah and a day of joy in the cities of France and other towns for a boy and also for a girl, and the practical halakhic implication is that if you are invited, you should go.(4)
Since there is no evidence of a Bat Mitzvah ceremony in France in the mid-nineteenth century, but there is ample evidence of Confirmation ceremonies for boys and girls beginning in 1841, I now believe that Rabbi Musafiyah was referring to a Confirmation party and not to a Bat Mitzvah party.
A second source from the 19th century – much more well-known and widely quoted – is that of Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (1833-1909) in his very influential Ben Ish Hai. This book of halakhic sermons was first printed in 1899-1904, but the author explains in his introduction that it contains sermons from 1870ff. In his sermon for Parashat R’ei, he states that a boy is obligated to perform mitzvot at age 13 and one day, at which time his father should recite Barukh Shepetarani, [= “Blessed is God who has absolved me of the punishment of this one”]. The father should try to make a Se’udat Mitzvah for his friends and family, the most important of the invitees should put their hands on the boy’s head and bless him with Birkat Kohanim [the Priestly Blessing], and the boy or the father or a scholar should give a Derashah. The boy should wear a new garment and recite sheheheyanu, and if he can’t afford new clothing, then he should recite it on a new fruit.
And also a girl, on the day she is obligated to observe mitzvot [i.e., 12 years and one day], even though they are not accustomed to make her a se’udah, even so, she should be happy that day and wear Shabbat clothes, and if she can afford it, she should wear a new garment and recite sheheheyanu and also intend [the blessing] to include her entry into the yoke of commandments.(5)
It should be stressed that Rabbi Yosef Hayyim is not reporting about an existing custom; he is inventing a new custom, including joy, Shabbat clothing, and sheheheyanu on a new garment.
In 1893, Rabbi Meir Friedmann (Ish Shalom, 1831-1908), one of the foremost Midrash scholars of the 19th century and one of Solomon Schechter’s teachers, wrote a responsum in German on “Participation of Women in Worship”. After discussing the halakhic sources regarding women singing and aliyot for women, he expresses his opposition to Confirmation for girls. He writes: “Wouldn’t it be better to call our girls as Bar Mitzvah [sic!] to the Torah exactly like the boys?… It goes without saying that one must erect a covered staircase directly from the women’s gallery to the bimah, so that those called up can ascend and descend without being seen.”(6) I am not aware of anyone actually trying to implement this specific suggestion, but within a few decades, there were Bat Mitzvah girls in the U.S. having aliyot on the Shabbat of their Bat Mitzvah.
In 1902, Dr. Yehezkel Caro, the Reform rabbi in Lvov (Lemberg) held some sort of celebration for girls at his Temple, which was adamantly opposed by the local Zionists. Dov Sadan, who published a Hebrew article about this episode based on the Russian-language Jewish periodical Voskhod, called it a “Bat Mitzvah”, but Hizky Shoham points out that the original Russian text uses the word “Confirmation”.(7)
The earliest Bat Mitzvah in which a girl actually read from the Torah herself might have been that of Ida Blum (born 1908) in Calumet, Michigan ca. 1920. She recalled later in life being tutored by her father and reading a section from the Torah scroll at her Bat Mitzvah.(8)
II. What exactly did Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan do at the first Bat Mitzvah ceremony for his daughter Judith in 1922?
The first Bat Mitzvah ceremony which most people have heard of is the one arranged by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) for his eldest daughter Judith (1909-1996) on March 18, 1922. There are conflicting accounts as to what exactly transpired. She was 12-and-a-half at the time. Although people were invited in advance, the actual ceremony was only improvised on Friday night. On Shabbat morning, after the regular Torah and Haftarah reading, Judith, who was sitting in the men’s section with her father, stood up below the Bimah after the lifting of the Torah, recited the blessing before the Torah reading, read part of the portion of Kedoshim (Leviticus 19-20) from a Humash, and recited the blessing after the Torah reading.(9)
Purists argue that technically this was not a Bat Mitzvah ceremony since Judith did not read from a Torah scroll and did not read the actual weekly portion of that Shabbat. I believe that they are missing the point. Other than the little-documented example of Ida Blum, this might have been the first time that an individual girl aged 12+ stood before a congregation and read publicly from a Humash with the Torah blessings.
III. How the Bat Mitzvah ceremony spread rapidly through the Conservative movement, pushing aside Confirmation and spreading rapidly to the Reform movement
In any case, even if that ceremony was not technically a Bat Mitzvah ceremony, given Rabbi Kaplan’s standing as a Professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary who was a role model to many rabbinical students and a public intellectual, the Bat Mitzvah ceremony of his daughter became an important precedent.
In 1933, Rabbi Kaplan complained in his diary that there had not been a single Bas Mizvah [sic!] at the SAJ – his synagogue – for two years until the one that morning.(10) Yet, what began as a trickle, soon became a mighty stream within the Conservative movement, which quickly spread to the Reform and Orthodox movements.
Rabbi Morris Silverman reported in the “Survey of Ritual” to the Rabbinical Assembly convention in 1932:
In regard to the question of the Bas Mitzvah ceremony, the ceremony should have been explained [in the survey] in view of the fact that some know nothing of its existence and had confused it with the confirmation ceremony. The Bas Mitzvah is an individual ceremony for the girl and corresponds to the Bar Mitzvah ceremony of the boy. After a year of training and study of Hebrew, the girl, upon reaching the age of 12 or 13, is called up to the pulpit after the Haftara, reads in Hebrew and English the prayer “Make pleasant we therefore beseech Thee, etc.,” then reads a portion of the Bible in Hebrew and English, which in some congregations is followed by a brief original address which the Bas Mitzvah has written herself. Then she is welcomed by the Rabbi. In some cases, a certificate is given the Bas Mitzvah or the Bas Mitzvah signs a pledge in advance. The benediction by the Rabbi concludes the ceremony. Prof. Kaplan has originated this ceremony and it is now followed in 6 congregations according to the replies. 3 plan to introduce it in the near future, and 2 others intend to use it at the Friday Night Services.(11)
This is a very important report. On the one hand, we learn that ten years after the first Bat Mitzvah ceremony, most Conservative rabbis didn’t know what it was and only 6 out of 110 rabbis who filled out the survey (5%) conducted a Bat Mitzvah ceremony, as opposed to 74% who did Confirmation.(12) On the other hand, 3 more planned to introduce it on Shabbat morning and 2 on Friday night. We also learn a lot of important details: it’s an individual ceremony like Bar Mitzvah and not a group ceremony like Confirmation; the age for girls is 12 or 13; the girl must have training and learn how to read Hebrew; she reads a prayer “Make pleasant”; she reads a portion of the Bible in Hebrew and English just as Judith Kaplan did; she sometimes gives a Derashah like a Bar Mitzvah boy; she is sometimes given a certificate like a Bar Mitzvah boy; and she is addressed by the rabbi.
By the time of Rabbi Morris Goodblatt’s “Survey of Ritual” in 1948, more than 33% of Conservative synagogues had a Bat Mitzvah ceremony, while according to Marshall Sklare in his classic work Conservative Judaism in 1955, 51% of synagogues had instituted the ritual, even though, usually, only a small group of families in those synagogues availed themselves of the ceremony.(13)
By 1962, when Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal published a detailed survey based on 264 Conservative synagogues, 85% conducted individual Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, 7% held group Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, 4.5% held both, and 3.5% held none. Of the individual ceremonies, 66% were held on Friday nights, 11% on Shabbat mornings, 13% on both Friday night and Shabbat mornings, and the rest on Sunday evening, weekday Minhah or Festivals. (14)
It appears that by 1995, all Conservative synagogues held Shabbat morning Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.(15)
The ceremony itself was also transformed over the course of time. As hinted in Rabbi Silverman’s report, in many Conservative synagogues, the Bat Mitzvah girl read the haftarah on Friday night. This was done because women and girls did not have Aliyot in Conservative synagogues until the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards allowed women to have Aliyot in 1955. It is worth stressing that the 1955 responsum by Rabbi Aaron Blumenthal allowed Aliyot for all women, but the responsum by Rabbi Sanders Tofield only allowed Aliyot for Bat Mitzvah girls. When one reads the discussion at the Rabbinical Assembly convention that year, one gets the distinct impression that the main impetus for writing these responsa was to allow Bat Mitzvah girls to have Aliyot and read from the Torah on Shabbat morning.(16)
The transformation of the ceremony in Conservative synagogues is epitomized by North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois, which was the basis of Marshall Sklare’s Lakeville Studies done in the 1950s. The synagogue was founded in 1948 and on Friday evening, October 20, 1950, Beverly Joyce Rubinstein celebrated the first Bas Mitzvah. In 1952, Rabbi Philip Lipis formed the first Bas Mitzvah class of three girls and in 1954 he founded a Bat Mitzvah Club to provide activities similar to the boys’ Tephilin Club. In January 1974, Rabbi Samuel Dresner eliminated the Friday night Bat Mitzvah, thereafter to be celebrated on Shabbat morning.(17)
IV. How Bat Mitzvah was adopted by Orthodox Jews beginning in 1944, despite opposition from some very influential poskim (halakhic authorities)
As shown elsewhere (18) the Bat Mitzvah ceremony moved from the Conservative movement to the Reform movement and gradually pushed aside the Confirmation ceremony.
More surprisingly, the Bat Mitzvah ceremony was slowly but surely adopted by Orthodox rabbis and synagogues, though it took different forms due to halakhic restraints and opposition. Michael Hilton relates that Rabbi Jerome Tov Feinstein instituted the Friday night Bat Mitzvah ceremony at Anshe Emes in Brooklyn in 1944. It consisted of the girl lighting candles and answering questions about what she had learned.(19)
One of the best ways of tracing the development of a halakhic issue in the Orthodox world is to follow the trail of responsa written on the subject. Many of these responsa have been summarized in various articles.(20) The responsa can be divided into three categories:
A. One group of poskim, mostly Ashkenazic, opposed any form of Bat Mitzvah party.
In a responsum addressed to the Rabbinic Association of London in 1927, Rabbi Aharon Walkin, expressed fierce opposition to Confirmation ceremonies for girls as a transgression of not going in the ways of the Gentiles (Leviticus 18:3); because it’s a Reform innovation; and because it’s forbidden to do anything new.
In 1960, Rabbi Moshe Stern of Brooklyn maintained that there is no Bat Mitzvah celebration since there is no change in the girl’s pattern of observance. He then opposed the custom for the same three reasons as Rabbi Walkin.
In 1988, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg of Jerusalem opposed a Bat Mitzvah party at a hall or even as a public party at home since it can lead to licentiousness. Furthermore, he had never heard of anyone “among the camp of those who fear God’s word” who did this or even suggested the practice.
Rabbi Moshe Malka, one of the few Sefardic rabbis to oppose Bat Mitzvah, argued in 1980 that it’s an imitation of Reform and Conservative Jews, and has the scent of Catholicism. The latter comment probably indicates that he confused Bat Mitzvah with Confirmation.
B. The next two rabbis appear to be opposed to any Bat Mitzvah party, but, in fact, allow it.
In 1956, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, forbade any Bat Mitzvah celebration in a synagogue even at night, but allowed a simhah at home; it’s not a Seudat Mitzvah, just a birthday party. He calls the Bat Mitzvah ceremony in the synagogue an optional activity and hevel b’alma [= mere foolishness] since it came from Reform and Conservative Jews. In a later responsum, he explained that one does not make a seudah for a girl since there is no difference in her actions before and after age 12. Yet, in a third responsum from 1959, he relented quite a bit and allowed the Bat Mitzvah girl to say a few words at the Kiddush in the synagogue after the service, but not on the Bimah.
In 1958, Rabbi Meshulam Rath of Bnai Berak wrote a responsum to Dr. Sh. Z. Kahana, Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Religion, regarding a plan for Bat Mitzvah celebrations. He ruled that the father cannot say the blessing Barukh Sheptarani since he is not required by the Talmud to educate his daughter. Even so, he ruled that the day can be celebrated at home or in the school for girls where she studies, together with relatives and friends, and the teacher, male or female, can give a lecture to explain the obligations of a Jewish girl who has reached the age of mitzvot.
C. The lenient camp
As for the more lenient camp, the main Ashkenazic rabbi to defend the Bat Mitzvah party was Rabbi Y.Y. Weinberg in 1963. He asserts that the Bat Mitzvah is not a Gentile practice. As for its being a new custom, he says that today when girls receive a secular education, both logic and pedagogy almost require us to celebrate a girl’s reaching the age of mitzvot, and discrimination insults the girls. He, however, agrees with Rabbi Feinstein that the celebration should take place at home or in the hall next to the sanctuary. Similarly, Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt permitted a party at home in 1966, while in 1973, Rabbi Hanokh Zundel Grossberg allowed a small family party at home, accompanied by words of Torah.
A series of well-known Sefardic poskim ruled, in the footsteps of Rabbis Avraham Musafiyah and Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad quoted above, in favor of a Bat Mitzvah celebration at home, including the girl wearing a new dress, and reciting Shehehayanu over the dress and the occasion. These poskim included Rabbis Ovadia Hadaya in 1955, Yitzhak Nissim in 1964, Amram Aburbiya in 1965, and Hayyim David Halevi in 1976. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled in 1976 and 1978 that the Bat Mitzvah party is a good custom, and that it’s appropriate that Divrei Torah and songs of praise to God be recited there. He does not restrict the party to a private home. In addition, Rabbis Nissim, Aburbiya and Yosef also ruled that the father may or should recite the Barukh Sheptarani blessing.
Thus, many Orthodox rabbis ruled from 1955-1978 that a Bat Mitzvah party may be held at home, along with words of Torah. Some even allowed the father to recite Barukh Sheptarani and some even allowed marking the occasion at a Kiddush in the synagogue building.
In the 1980s, Orthodox rabbis and laypeople became more liberal in their practices. In a liberal Orthodox synagogue in Montreal ca. 1987, the rabbi called the ceremony Bat Chochmah instead of Bat Mitzvah. The ceremony could be held on Shabbat morning, Friday night, Saturday evening or Sunday. If held on Shabbat morning, it was held after the service ended; the men and women sat together in the synagogue in order to indicate that it was after the service. The girl stood on the Bimah and gave a Dvar Torah she had prepared which was not related to the weekly portion.(21) In other words, everything was done to indicate that it was not a regular Shabbat Bar Mitzvah.
Beginning in the 1970s, some Orthodox women began to hold separate women’s Tefillot, which included reading the Torah and Haftarah. This enabled girls to have a Bat Mitzvah in which they read the Torah portion, the Haftarah, and gave a Dvar Torah. There are detailed descriptions of such Bat Mizvah ceremonies as early as 1981.(22) In addition, Modern Orthodox women and rabbis developed other alternatives, such as the Bat Mitzvah girl doing a Siyyum of a tractate of Mishnah or Talmud, or reading the book of Esther on Purim or Shir Hashirim on Pesah.(23) Even so, the Orthodox Bat Mitzvah ceremony was frequently accompanied by halakhic tension as the family struggled with Tradition vs. Change.(24)
Thus, we have seen that the Bat Mitzvah ceremony, like many Jewish customs, underwent many changes during its first 100 years. There will, no doubt, be further changes in years to come.
11 Adar II 5782
An American Bat Mitzvah Ceremony.
A Bat Mitzvah Ceremony at Ezrat Yisrael, the Egalitarian Kotel, with Rabbi Ada Zavidov and Cantor Evan Cohen from Kehilat Har-El, Jerusalem.
To purchase volumes of Rabbi Golinkin’s Responsa Please Click Here
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.