“In truth, becoming a ‘bar mitzvah’ [son of the commandments] or a “bat mitzvah” [daughter of the commandments] is automatic,” explains Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park.
“The phrase merely describes the reality that a person is old enough now to be responsible for his or her own observance of God’s commandments, or mitzvot. Every Jewish male who reaches his 13th birthday and every Jewish female who reaches her 12th birthday is a bar or bat mitzvah. It just happens. There’s no ceremony or anything else required; there’s no magic wand that needs to be waved over the person.”
Nevertheless, the occasion has long been marked by a celebration centered around an “aliyah” or “calling up” to the reader’s platform to say blessings over the Torah scroll and chant all or part of the Torah service – usually the haftarah, or “conclusion” excerpt from the biblical books of the prophets following the weekly Torah reading.
Technically, there’s no such thing as a “second” bar mitzvah.
“A man who reaches age 83 has been responsible for his own observance of the mitzvot for 70 years by then,” says Engelmayer. “The same holds true for a woman who reaches age 82. He or she doesn’t suddenly become relieved of that responsibility so that some ceremony is required to reassume it.”
Rather, this later-life ceremony is a recognition that the celebrant “has lived a full life so far that has extended way beyond the biblical ‘norm’ of 70 years, and is grateful for and recognizes God’s role as partner in that life,” he continues.
In Engelmayer’s view, the second bar mitzvah is a way of saying, “I may have had free choice in whether to fulfill God’s mitzvot, but I never had a choice about being responsible for fulfilling them. Now, 70 years later, as I look back on my life, I say ‘Thank God for that.'”
And what about a second bat mitzvah? “Most women of that age never even knew they’d become a bat mitzvah, much less celebrated becoming one,” he says. “It just wasn’t done.”
Since many people mistakenly believe a bar mitzvah ceremony confers what is really an automatic status on a boy of 13, they also mistakenly believe that without a ceremony, a woman never became a bat mitzvah.
“That’s why you often see women seeking to become an ‘adult bat mitzvah’ rather than waiting for 82,” explains Engelmayer. “Not having realized that they were a bat mitzvah in the first place, it’s hard to celebrate becoming one a second time.”