“Bar Mitzvah” is Not a Verb!

“Oh, I love Rabbi Cohen! He bar-mitzvah’ed my son!”

< insert screech of fingernails across a blackboard here >

This is a line you may occasionally hear. Don’t be fooled: “bar mitzvah” is not a verb. A bar mitzvah is a person. Specifically, a bar mitzvah is a Jewish male over the age of 13.

Let me repeat that: A bar mitzvah is a Jewish male age 13 or older. The exact translation is “son of a commandment.” It means “old enough to count for a minyan [quorum for prayer] and as a witness.” In all cases, a noun.

“Bar Mitzvah” may also – as a noun! – refer to the celebrations connected with that coming-of-age event. These may include a service, a Torah reading, a kiddush lunch, or a grossly ostentatious party, but whatever the referent, the word is always used as a noun or maybe an adverb (as in “my bar mitzvah portion was…”) And none of the above: service, Torah, lunch, or party are required for a boy to become a bar mitzvah. It’s automatic: he turns 13, he’s a bar mitzvah.

Same for “bat mitzvah.” That’s the feminine, again a noun. The girl may be 12½ or 13, depending on the custom in her community. What responsibilities she may take on at that age will also depend on the custom in her community. The age is the critical matter, not what she studied, what services she has led, what readings of Torah or Haftarah she has learned. She is a bat mitzvah if she is over the right age!

A adult convert who stepped out of the mikveh 15 minutes ago is a bar or bat mitzvah, simply by virtue of being (1) Jewish and (2) past their 13th birthday.

In case you are wondering, the plural of bar mitzvah is b’nei mitzvah and the feminine plural is b’not mitzvah.

And yes, there is something called an “Adult Bar or Bat Mitzvah” which is usually a celebration and/or service marking the end of a period of intense study. In the US, some adult Jews who did not have a celebration at age 13 choose to have the study and celebration later in life. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s still a noun.

There are a few things that make me really cranky. This is one. Thanks for reading.





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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

4 thoughts on ““Bar Mitzvah” is Not a Verb!”

  1. This is timely – My partner was reading a book about converts, who kept using the phrase in a funny way. We had a conversation about it, with me (as a convert) having to think through the grammar rather than really having a gut sense on use (hmm, that means son/daughter of the commandment, so that must mean that you use it this way). It’s funny how often your posts are *exactly* what I was wondering or talking about at that point in time!

  2. At age 33, I celebrated my Anshe Mitzvah. At age 13, I wanted to be Bat Mitzvah, but no dice. My dad, who was the Director of Religious Education at our Temple, was in the process of including girls in Hebrew study, but there was no such thing as a Bat Mitzvah in those times. My service was on Simchat Torah, so I had two portions to read…Death of Moses and first days of creation. I chanted the Bereshit portion, a first in our congregation, more than 32 years ago. As a lay cantor, we also used this service as an opportunity to introduce a lot of new music to the congregation…things we sing to this day that people think we have always sung. Love it! We also now chant Torah and Haftorah. I love to look back on this whole experience, as a marker for how far we have come in my congregation and in the Reform movement. Oh, and I was in my first month of being pregnant with Rebecca – best Bat Mitzvah gift ever. And, I am sure that my rabbi did not bat mitzvah me!

  3. I, too, deplore the current trend of “verbizing” (ha!) nouns!

    Some years ago we went to the combined bar/bat mitzvah for a friend’s two kids. We’re Protestant, so it was a totally new experience. It was fascinating and beautiful, though, especially the singing and the chanting in Hebrew.

    The only thing that seemed odd was how the other attendees seemed to come and go at random, and then would sit and chat with each other like there was nothing going on. No one else seemed to mind, so maybe that’s just what people do at these things?

    I also didn’t realize that the terms bar/bat mitzvah also meant the persons being celebrated. I learned something new today!

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