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Bar and Bat Mitzvah: Jewish youths step boldly, faithfully into adulthood

Published: Thursday, Aug. 22 2013 11:35 a.m. MDT

Jordan Ciulla works with Rabbi Benny Zippel to prepare for his bar mitzvah ceremony.

Courtesy Chabad Lubavitch of Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — When the shofar sounds during traditional celebrations of the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 5) and Yom Kippur (Sept. 14) at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah next month, Sarahle Zippel will be hearing it for the last time as a Jewish child.

In November (“G-d willing,” writes her father, Rabbi Benny Zippel, in an email correspondence), Sarahle will turn 12, the age at which Jewish girls become “bat mitzvah,” or “daughter of commandment.” According to Jewish tradition, 12-year-old Sarahle will be a woman, fully accountable for her own transgressions of the law and expected to perform all of the duties and responsibilities of a Jewish woman.

“This happens by default,” said Rabbi Zippel during a recent break in his high holy days preparations. “It isn’t dependent upon some ceremony or celebration. It is a state of being. You become bar mitzvah (for boys, which means 'son of commandment’) or bat mitzvah automatically. It’s like a birthday. You don’t have to have a party to get another year older. It just happens.”

But in orthodox Jewish families, it is not something that happens lightly.

“Sarahle has been studying for the past year the significance of becoming bat mitzvah,” said her mother, Sharonne. “She is learning how she will be responsible for all her actions once she turns 12, and how she is obligated in keeping all of the Torah’s commandments.”

In some cases, Sharonne said, Sarahle has been practicing the things she will be expected to do as a Jewish woman. She has practiced fasting, for example, “so she will be all prepared when the time comes,” her mother said. She has also been studying the performance of the three “mitzvot,” or commandments, given specifically to Jewish women: lighting the Shabbat (or Sabbath) candles, separating her Challah dough (setting aside, for God, a portion of the braided dough for Sabbath and holy day bread) and the laws of family purity.

“In other areas of Jewish life,” Sharonne said, “Sarahle has been learning by observing our everyday actions.”

The process of bar mitzvah is very similar for Jewish boys, including months of study and preparation for the role they will play as Jewish men. However, the young men make their journey to Jewish manhood a year later. Which makes sense, as far as Rabbi Zippel is concerned, because “physiologically speaking, boys go through puberty later than girls.”

While the public celebration of a Jewish young person becoming bar or bat mitzvah is, according to Rabbi Zippel, “the least important part of it,” it is often a part of recognizing this significant milestone.

Recently, however, the practice of a bar mitzvah celebration was taken to an extreme in honor of a young man in Dallas completing his journey to Jewish manhood. The popularity of a video on YouTube featuring the boy performing with a group of fringe-clad dancers prompted David Wolpe, rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a noted Jewish author, to ask, "Have we forgotten what bar mitzvahs are all about?"

"To turn a ceremony of spiritual maturation into a Vegas showgirl parade teaches a child sexualization of spirit," Rabbi Wolpe wrote in the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog site. "Bar mitzvah means something," Rabbi Wolpe continued, "and however beautiful his religious ceremony may have been, and however sincere the Judaism of his family (I don’t know and cannot judge) it is drowned out by the cymbal crash of hip grinding libertinism."

A week later, Rabbi Wolpe wrote another post in which he apologized for having written things that may have been hurtful to the young man and his family — but not for the position he took regarding bar mitzvah.

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