Q. How did the Bat-Mitzvah ceremony originate?A. There is nothing in the Bible and Talmud about a Bat-Mitzvah ceremony, though it has long been accepted that at 12 a Jewish girl has the responsibility of observing commandments. Some argued against giving girls a formal Jewish education (e.g. Kidd. 29b), but other passages (e.g. Chag. 3a) state that when the king convened a national assembly to hear the Torah (Deut. 21:12), women as well as men came to learn.
There was a feeling against teaching girls the intricacies of halachah, but over the centuries women became quite adept at Bible, Midrash and Siddur. In addition there were a number of famous women scholars and in some places much effort was directed towards girls’ Jewish education.
It was not until the 19th century that a girls’ ceremony was inaugurated. Orthodox synagogues in England and Australia introduced girls’ confirmation (or consecration) ceremonies in about the 1860s. These were often at Shavu’ot time, though in Australia, where the school year concludes in December, they were generally linked with Chanukah.
Chief Rabbi Adler gave his blessing to the girls’ consecration ceremonies instituted at the Bayswater Synagogue in 1864; the approving attitude of Chief Rabbi JH Hertz is seen in his introduction to a curriculum for girls’ ceremonies: “‘Ours is a new anxiety, unknown to Jewry before,’ said a noted Jewish scholar, ‘the anxiety about the religious education of our women’. As teachers of Judaism we recognise it is our sacred duty to face the danger, and to grapple with it. The contemplated course of instruction is a sincere attempt in that direction. May God’s blessing rest upon all who contribute towards its success.”
Bat-Mitzvah celebrations, though with reservations, were endorsed by Rabbi JJ Weinberg, a noted halachic authority. Responding to the claim that Bat-Mitzvah may be an imitation of the non-Jewish confirmation, Rav Weinberg says that if so we would also have to oppose Bar-Mitzvahs because non-Jews confirm boys too.
The aim of Bat-Mitzvah, he adds, is not to imitate anyone else but “to strengthen in the heart of a girl reaching the age of mitzvot a feeling of love for Judaism and its commandments and to arouse in her a feeling of pride in her Jewishness and her belonging to a great and holy people.”
To the argument that Bat-Mitzvah is an innovation, Rav Weinberg says that in days when Jews were intensely observant such celebrations may have been unnecessary. Today, however, it is “almost imperative to celebrate the attainment of the age of mitzvot for girls also. Moreover, the discrimination between boys and girls regarding the celebration of their reaching maturity would gravely affect the feelings of the maturing girl.”
True, Rav Weinberg and others ask that the celebration be at home or in a hall, not in the synagogue, and this is the general practice in Israel. Even there, there are those who advocate synagogue Bat-Mitzvah ceremonies, and Zuriel Admanit, one of the leaders of the religious Kibbutz Yavneh, once suggested that the girl could be called to the Torah, though this was met with almost total opposition.
Nonetheless, even without girls’ aliyot, the synagogue Bat-Mitzvah ceremony has became established in many places, either for a group of girls or on a “solo” basis. The ceremony is a powerful incentive for a girl to undertake a course of study. Sometimes this is more effective than boys’ Bar-Mitzvah lessons since girls are required to present a personal d’var Torah, and a girl consequently puts her own thinking into her ceremony.
The old attitude that girls’ education is not as important as boys’ has disappeared, and there is an increasing number of women Talmudists and of women’s yeshivot.