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Courtesy Chabad Lubavitch of Utah
Jordan Ciulla works with Rabbi Benny Zippel to prepare for his bar mitzvah ceremony.

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.

At Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, the celebrations tend to be much more traditional, although even within the tradition of the bar and bat mitzvah there is built-in variance.

“Boys,” the rabbi said, “traditionally read from the Torah and in some cases also give a talk about what it means to enter adulthood or what message they derived from their Torah reading. Some boys also lead part of the service.”

Girls, on the other hand, will focus on the significance of entering into womanhood. For Sarahle, that will mean preparing centerpieces and making a presentation based on the theme of the three women’s mitzvot.

Fathers also have a role in the bar mitzvah ceremony, one that most fathers anxiously embrace, Rabbi Zippel said.

“There is a prayer that is recited by the father,” he explained. “The father says, ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, that you have redeemed me — or freed me — from the liability of this young man.’

“As long as the boy is ‘katan,’ or a minor, he is learning,” Rabbi Zippel continued. “If transgressions are committed, they are owned by the parent. If the boy sins, it is the parents’ fault. But at nightfall on the day before your birthday, the boy becomes bar mitzvah, and he becomes accountable for himself and his own obedience to the law.

“Parents like that,” he added, smiling.

While there is not a similar prayer in the bat mitzvah ceremony, Sharonne said they haven't had much to worry about in that respect with regards to Sarahle.

“Sarahle lives her life, on a daily basis, constantly imbued and enriched with the values of Judaism," Sharonne said. "So there won’t be so much of a noticeable physical change once she becomes bat mitzvah, but more of a personal, inner change."

And watching her daughter grow through this period of preparation makes her happy — and proud. “Watching her grow and mature into a lovely young woman,” she said, “is quite an emotional celebration for the whole family.”

For her part, Sarahle said she is excited for her bat mitzvah, “and not just for the party and family that's coming.”

“I’m excited because now I’ll be considered an adult, according to the Torah,” she said, “and I can do the same things in Jewish life as my mother and sister.”

And that’s just as it should be, Rabbi Zippel said.

“Just like the bond between parent and son or parent and daughter can never be removed, so too is the bond between God and his people,” he said. “Through this process, young people enter into a relationship with God, who is the commander of the mitzvah. This is a bond that can never be removed from them.

“It is not determined by a ceremony,” Rabbi Zippel continued. “It is not determined by knowledge. It is not determined by the level of religious observance. It is simply a state of being.”

The state of being a son or daughter of commandment.

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