Bat Mitzvah: A Challenge for Religious Education

Jan 20, 2000

Bat Mitzvah: A Challenge for Religious Education

Translated by Moshe Sokolow Copyright 1989, Ten Da’at.

The religious upper school educational system in the State of Israel, comprised of Torah high schools, Ulpanot, technical and vocational schools, teachers’ seminaries and colleges, attempts to deal with the education of girls and their preparation for modern life. The parallel education on the elementary school level, however, often does not adequately prepare girls for the challenges and demands of higher education. To raise their awareness and better prepare them both for their Jewish studies as well as for their emerging sense of Jewish womanhood, it is suggested that schools adopt a program geared to the specific needs and development of the Bat Mitzvah. The following program is suggested as a starting point to be implemented in conjunction with a demanding and intense curriculum.

A. Zeved HaBat

The first ceremony linking a Jewish girl to Torah and mitzvot is the “Zeved HaBat”[1] the naming ceremony. It would thus be appropriate for girls to begin by exploring the various customs and texts connected with this ceremony.
A comparative study of various communities indicates that there are wide variations in this ceremony. In the Oriental and Sephardic communities, for example, several days after the birth of a girl (sometimes three days, a week or the first day of Torah reading; in some Ashkenazic communities a girl isn‘t named until she is five days old), the father goes up to the Torah and announces the name of his newborn daughter. The congregation responds with the verse: “Yonati bechagvei hasela…” (Shir HaShirim 2:12). The chazzan then recites a special Mi She-Beirakh in which mother and daughter are blessed [2]. The Jews of Rome also include the verse from Bereishit 24:60, “And they blessed Rivka saying to her. Our sister may you become thousandfold myriads! May your seed inherit the gate of those who hate him.”
According to the siddur of Rabbi Yitzchak Bar-Da, Tefillat Chanah, the text of the Mi SheBeirakh following the father ‘s aliyah, ends with the words: May [G-d]… bless her newborn daughter with good fortune and long life, and let her name be …daughter of…[mother ‘s name]. May her parents raise her in a life of Torah, and may they see her married and performing good deeds. Amen.”
An interesting program for a Zeved HaBat is found in the siddur of Rabbi David de Sola Poole, according to the Spanish-Portuguese rites of Congregation Shearith Israel of New York. In the case of a girl who is a first born child the verse“Achat hi Yonati…” (Shir Ha-Shirim 6:9) is added. At the end of the ceremony, according to this version, Psalm 128 is said, and following that Kaddish is recited.
Studying this ceremony, with all its variations, will provide students with a sense of significance and pride.

B. The Bat Mitzvah Celebration

The core of the Bat Mitzvah celebration must be seen as a comprehensive educational project and not just as a ceremony. It is for this reason that there need not be any special significance as to when it is held. The timing of a Bat Mitzvah celebration does not have to be fixed to a specific date, as it is in the case of a Bar Mitzvah. The ceremony can be held any time during the twelfth year. It is suggested that the actual ceremony regardless of the birth date be scheduled close to Shavuot. In this way the link is forged between the Bat Mitzvah celebration and Matan Torah.
Rabbi Eliakim Ellirison, in his book Between Woman and Her Creator [3], notes the disagreement among poskimconcerning the Bat Mitzvah celebration. He writes:
Whether one arranges a celebration for others or not, the girl herself is required to rejoice on the day she joins the community of those who are commanded and who observe. She should dress in Shabbat clothes and, if possible, wear a new garment over which she should recite the Shehechiyanu bearing in mind her own new observance of mitzvot.
In Responsa Kol Mevaser [4] it is written:
The occasion can be signified as a day of … rejoicing in the company of friends and relatives, at home or in the … school which she attends. The teacher can speak about the significance of the day and explain the responsibilities of a Jewish girl who has reached the age of mitzvot.
Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim, zt”l, former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, writes [5]:
I have seen a handwritten responsum of Rabbi A. Mussafia that he who prepares a meal on the day his daughter enters the obligation of mitzvot at the age of twelve, it seems to me that this is a seudat Mitzvah no different from that of a thirteen year old boy. This is a proper custom and in France they prepare meals and celebrations for boys and girls. What difference does the status of the meal make? If one is invited to a seudat Mitzvah one is obliged to go.
The view of Ben Ish Chai [6] bears noting:
The daughter as well, on the day when she becomes obligated for mitzvot, even though it is not customary to have a festive meal, she should view it as a day of simcha wearing Shabbat clothing and, if at all possible, she should try to wear a new garment with the blessing of Shehechiyanu intended for the day as well. There are those who customarily celebrate birthdays and this is laudatory and this custom is followed in our home.
According to these sources the Bat Mitzvah ceremony should take place in the family framework, or in school, accompanied by a seudat Mitzvah. The importance of celebrating this occasion among family and friends is self evident. Educators, however, should not overlook the significance and unique educational opportunity that a school celebration can provide its Bnot Mitzvah.
In the Amalia School in Jerusalem we have developed a ceremony in honor of our Bnot Mitzvah. The ceremony begins with tefilla at the Kotel on the night before Shavuot. During the subsequent late night hours the Bnot Mitzvah study, in chavruta, texts from Tanakh, Mishna, Talmud and Aggada relating to issues of the the Jewish woman. On erev Shavuot parents are invited to participate in a celebration of the Bat Mitzvah of their daughters. During the first half of the program the girls are seated at family tables. At each table a girl lights a candle and recollects the life of a Jewish woman beginning with the matriachs and other Biblical figures such as Devorah and Esther, and progressing to women in Jewish history such as Chanah Senesh and others. During the second half of the program the heroism of Chana and her seven sons is highlighted.
A Bat Mitzvah program must not be limited to the ceremonious. It must stress concentration on curriculum and learning. In addition, there should be an emphasis on experiential learning. Bearing in mind the emotional identification appropriate for girls of this age, they should be provided with as many unmediated personal encounters as possible. These encounters could include chozrim bi ‘tshuvah, poets, authors and others who may have a similar influence. They should meet women from all types of communities who will share their personal stories, communal customs, practices and way of life. They should also have preparatory discussions on those mitzvot and customs of particular application to women, such as hadlakat neirot, hafrashat chalah, etc.
A Bat Mitzvah program is an important challenge to religious educators. A balanced approach from a cognitive and affective-social perspective, as well as a meaningful ceremony, will serve as a clear indication to our Bnot Mitzvah that their Jewish identity, established at the very moment they received their Jewish name, must develop and grow into a commitment to Torah learning and Mitzvot and a pride in their Jewish womanhood.
[1] In the commentary of Ramban to the verse: G-d has given me a zeved tov” (Gen. 30:20) Rambam explains the word zeved is comprised of two words: zeh bad. The meaning of the words zeved tov would thus be zeved bad tov, this is good material. The conventional interpretation (according to Onkelos as well) is “a good portion.” According to lbn Ezra Zevulun and Dinah were twins. This might be the original connection between the zeved ceremony and the birth of a girl.
[2] Among Persian and Bukharan Jews there is a custom that when the father of a newborn girl is called to the Torah candies are thrown at him and the community sings:Deroryikra li ‘ben im Bat, etc., repeating the syllable Bat three times each time it appears.
[3] Bein IshaLeYotzrah, chap. 15, p. 172
[4] M. Roth, Kol Mevasser II, 44
[5] Y. Nissim in Noam VII, p. 3
[6] Ben Ish Chai on Devarim, Parshat Re ‘eh par. 17