Why Do Girls Celebrate a Bat Mitzvah at 12?

Dear Rabbi Fried,

Our daughter has just turned 11, and we are beginning to make Bat Mitzvah plans. My husband and I, however, are torn whether to celebrate the event at her 12th birthday, in the traditional way, or to wait until she’s 13. Many of our friends have done it at 13 at our Temple. Have you any insight into this question?


Dear Anita,

The reason girls traditionally celebrate their Bas Mitzvah a year before the boys celebrate their Bar Mitzvah is quite the contrary! I will explain.

The context through which we approach traditional Jewish practices greatly affects our view of them. If we view the Torah to have been written by mortal man, it becomes possible to assign chauvinistic biases to its precepts. If, however, we view the Torah as a divinely transmitted document by the Creator Himself, we know that the laws within express deep and profound truths about the human condition. It is the “Manufacturer’s instruction guide” to life!

The tradition that a girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah at age 12, a year before a boy, is based upon numerous sources throughout Torah and rabbinic literature. 

Rather than this reflecting women’s alleged relative shallowness, as you have heard; it is quite the contrary. In the creation story, Eve was built (va’yivein) from the rib of Adam. The word “va’yivein” carries a dual meaning; “to be built”, and “intuition and understanding”. The Talmud explains the reason this word “va’yivein” was used in the Torah rather than the usual “va’yitzer”, created, is hinting to a significant component in the creation of women. Eve was, unlike Adam, endowed with the trait of “binah yaseirah”, meaning elevated understanding and intuition. 

The concept of “binah” which is specific to women has profound roots in the deeper, Kabbalistic sources which explain many of the emotional, physical and spiritual differences between women and men. As the result of this unique trait we find many instances of spiritual superiority of women over men. This is reflected in the necessity for men only to undergo the tikkun (completion), of bris milah, circumcision, in order to enter the covenant of Judaism. Women, however, enter this covenant automatically at birth, as they need no such tikkun. [The lack of the need of women for this physical tikkun reflects her having no spiritual need in this arena; the male and female bodies were created in sync with their respective neshama or spiritual essence].

It is this trait which gave our matriarch Sarah a level of spiritual intuition over a spiritual giant such as Abraham. The Torah tells us that Sarah noticed roots of potentially destructive behavior with Ishmael and requested he be sent away. This was so he would not ruin the spiritual atmosphere of their home for her son Itzchak. Abraham was greatly distressed by her request, until G-d said to him “All that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice”. The classical commentary Rashi explains “her voice” to mean the voice of prophecy within her; Sarah was superior to Abraham in prophecy. A similar story takes place later in Genesis, when Rebbeca’s intuition was considered superior to that of Isaac in choosing Jacob over Esau as the heir of the Abrahamic dynasty. Although it was not clear at the time by their actions, Rebbeca was able to intuit the hidden roots of wickedness in Esau, something which was hidden to Isaac.

It is this binah which enables a young woman to mature earlier than a boy; her unique understanding and intuition enable her to become a Bat Mitzvah a full year earlier.

This maturation takes place whether or not your daughter does anything to prepare herself for the occasion. If she would, however, prepare herself with study and the performance of mitzvos, the effect of this occasion would be exponentially greater.

 One impactful area of study is to delve into the lives and unique qualities of the matriarchs, both biblical and subsequent feminine leaders, in Jewish history. This is an ideal area for your daughter to address in her speech. The matriarchs’ acts of kindness, their private and unassuming mannerisms, industriousness, awe of Heaven and their acceptance of motherhood of the Jewish people is deeply inspiring. Such studies, especially coupled with a mitzvah project embodying one or more of these qualities, make the Bas Mitzvah celebration such much more meaningful. The lessons learned and put into practice make the occasion much more memorable. As your daughter assimilates these qualities into her own life they could make a positive impact which will last a lifetime.

 I would recommend you celebrate your daughter’s coming of age at age 12, as has traditionally been the case, rather than to defer her Bat Mitzvah celebration to conform to that of a boy. In that way, you, your daughter and all the participants will celebrate her unique gifts as a woman!


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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