Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah are Jewish coming of age rituals. Bar is a word literally meaning son in Hebrew and bat is Hebrew for daughter, and mitzvah is a commandment and a law.
According to Jewish law, when Jewish boys become 13 years old, they become accountable for their actions and become a bar mitzvah. A girl becomes a bat mitzvah at the age of 12. Prior to reaching bar or bat mitzvah, the child’s parents hold the responsibility for the child’s actions. After this age, the girls and boys bear their own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition, and ethics, and are able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life. Traditionally, the father of the bar mitzvah gives thanks to G-d that he is no longer punished for the child’s sins. In addition to being considered accountable for their actions from a religious perspective, b’nai mitzvah may be counted towards a minyan (prayer quorum) and may lead prayer and other religious services in the family and the community. The age of thirteen is the age from which males must fast on the Day of Atonement, while females fast from the age of twelve. The bat or bar mitzvah ceremony is usually held on the first Shabbat after a girl’s twelfth and a boy’s thirteenth birthday.
On the first Sabbath of his thirteenth year, a boy is called up to read from the weekly portion of the Law, either as one of the first seven men or as the last, in which case he will read the closing verses and the Haftarah (selections from the books of the Prophets); if he is unable to read, to recite at least the benediction before and after the reading.
In most non-Orthodox circles, the above applies to a girl at the time of her bat mitzvah as well. Precisely what the bar/bat mitzvah should lead during the service varies in Judaism’s different denominations.
In Orthodox circles, the occasion is sometimes celebrated during a weekday service that includes reading from the Torah, such as a Monday or Thursday morning service, in which case the bar mitzvah will also lay tefillin for the first time. The custom of laying tefillin begins when a boy reaches bar mitzvah age. B’nai mitzvah festivities typically include a celebratory meal with family, friends, and members of the community. According to the Orthodox view, the bar mitzvah boy is so happy to be commanded to do mitzvot and earn rewards in the next world for his efforts, that he throws a party and has a festive meal. All Reform and Reconstructionist, and most Conservative synagogues have egalitarian participation, in which women read from the Torah and lead services.
The public celebration of a girl becoming bat mitzvah has made strong inroads into Modern Orthodox Judaism and also into some elements of Haredi Judaism. In these congregations, women do not read from the Torah or lead prayer services, but they occasionally lecture on a Jewish topic to mark their coming of age, learn a book of Tanakh, recite verses from the Book of Esther or the Book of Psalms, or say prayers from the siddur. In some Modern Orthodox circles, bat mitzvah girls will read from the Torah and lead prayer services in a women’s tefillah.
Bar or bat mitzvah celebrations have become an occasion to give the celebrant a commemorative gift. Gifts of cash have become commonplace in recent times. As with charity and all other gifts, it has become common to give in multiples of 18, since the gematria, or numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for “life” (“chai”), is the number 18. Monetary gifts in multiples of 18 are considered to be particularly auspicious and have become very common for bar and bat mitzvahs. Many bar and bat mitzvahs also receive their first tallit from their parents to be used for the occasion and tefillin where this is appropriate. Jewelry is a common gift for girls at a bat mitzvah celebration. Another gift for the bat mitzvah girl are Shabbat candlesticks because it is the duty and honour of the woman to light the candles.