The yoke of mitzvos is an adornment, not a burden
It’s a turning point for every young man and woman — the day they become obligated in the performance of mitzvos. Let’s explore the simchah of this occasion, and how it’s marked. And in appreciating the depth of this day, we can glean the path to potential greatness.
Behind the Number
The source for 12 and 13 being the age we’re obligated in mitzvos is halachah l’Moshe miSinai. But Midrash Seichel Tov sees a hint to this age from the story of Shimon and Levi taking arms to retaliate for the abduction of their sister Dinah. The Chumash states that each “man” took his sword; Chazal learn that they were 13, therefore, a “man” is presumed to be someone who has reached the age of 13.
The Shelah Hakadosh points out another reference in the Mishnah (Pesachim 1:1), which says one should check for chometz “ohr l’arba’ah asar,” on the night of the 14th. Likewise, the Shelah explains, when a boy enters his 14th year, he’s obligated to search his yetzer hara for any sins he may have done. It’s only at this point that a boy is held responsible for the mitzvos and aveiros he does. Rav Chaim Palagi adds that this is why it’s customary for a boy to give his bar mitzvah drashah at night — as soon as he enters into the world of obligation.
The Gemara in Niddah tells us that a woman has a greater binah yeseirah than a man. This is one reason offered to explain why a girl is obligated in mitzvos a year earlier than a boy.
It’s customary to have a meal to celebrate a boy becoming bar mitzvah. The Magen Avraham tells us that this seudah is akin to a wedding. The Zohar Hakadosh explains the pasuk “b’yom chasunaso” as referring to the day of a bar mitzvah, and says it has the same level of simchah as a wedding. We even refer to a bar mitzvah boy as the “chassan habar mitzvah.”
Yam shel Shlomo adds that if the bochur gives a drashah at the seudah in honor of his bar mitzvah, even if it’s not on the day of his actual birthday, it’s still considered a seudas mitzvah.
A hint to the idea of making a seudah is found in the Midrash describing the party Avraham Avinu made on the day of Yitzchak Avinu’s “weaning.” On a deeper level, this is a reference to when Yitzchak Avinu was weaned from his yetzer hara, as his yetzer tov had now entered him (i.e., on the day of his bar mitzvah).
The bar mitzvah is the first time a person’s yetzer tov enters him. Sheim MiShmuel describes that a great awakening descends on a person, filled with the light of the potential mitzvos they’ll complete in their lifetime. This light returns each time a person fulfills a mitzvah. In honor of this transition, we too make a party like Avraham Avinu.
The joy of the party, notes the Ben Ish Chai, is a powerful protective force for the Jewish People, as it shows we’re happy to take on the yoke of mitzvos. Rav Gedaliah Schorr ztz”l adds that the imagery of the yoke of mitzvos is a “yoke on their necks,” not on their shoulders, where a yoke is usually put on an animal. The neck is where jewelry is placed. This indicates that we view mitzvos as an adornment, and hence we celebrate when one becomes obligated in them.
Since we want to motivate girls to have this positive attitude to mitzvos as well, Seridei Eish encourages us to celebrate when girls become bas mitzvah. This seudah isn’t intrinsically a seudas mitzvah unless words of Torah and praise of Hashem are the main focus. Igros Moshe adds that in places where people customarily make a kiddush in shul in honor of simchahs, we can make a kiddush in honor of a bas mitzvah girl as well.
In all of these celebrations, care for the highest level of tzniyus, in dress and level of ostentation, are key.
Chiddushei Harim explains that the intense simchah felt on this day is because there’s one more member of the Jewish People who will take on responsibility of the community; daven for the community; and whose mitzvos will add a further level of protection for the entire Jewish People.
With this we can understand why the celebration is called a “bar” mitzvah. The Lev Simcha explains that “bar” is Aramaic for “outside.” Now this child can move outside of himself, be concerned for others.
The Chofetz Chaim notes that “bar” is another word for “son.” The child’s relationship with mitzvos and his service of Hashem is like a child to a parent. It’s a natural, unbroken love that can’t be separated. Likewise, at age 12, a bas mitzvah is also initiated into this special relationship, which sets the tone for a special commitment of a lifetime.
The First Mitzvah
There’s a debate over what’s the first mitzvah a child is obligated to fulfill when he turns this magic age. Chiddushei Harim explains that the first Mishnah in the Torah discusses saying Shema at night; this teaches us that the first mitzvah a child has is accepting of the yoke of Heaven in Shema. Rav Schorr adds that when accepting the yoke of Hashem’s kingship for the first time, we should be cognizant that this moment has the potential to impact our avodas Hashem for our entire life.
Rav Eliyahu Chaim Cohen in Otzros HaTorah cites the idea that as soon as a boy becomes bar mitzvah, he’s obligated in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, as well as the six constant mitzvos. The Chasam Sofer suggests that the first mitzvah is the mitzvah of simchah, feeling joy at having the zechus to be obligated in the performance of the mitzvos.
Likewise, notes Rav Cohen, based on the Zohar Hakodesh, there are great spiritual strengths granted to the child directly from under the Throne of Glory on the day of his bar mitzvah, for those who wish to access them. The key is to desire to use them for spiritual pursuits. A child needs to take these gifts and dedicate himself to a life of serving Hashem completely.
Rav Chaim Kanievsky, quoting his father, the Steipler Gaon, says a child should take upon himself one mitzvah that he’ll do with complete dedication his entire life. Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz suggests taking on the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents. Kaf Hachayim reminds the child to add more time to Torah study on the day of his birthday, as well as on the day he puts on tefillin for the first time. Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Fuchs notes that a girl should wear a new outfit, or have a new fruit, to enable her to say the brachah of shehechayanu, and she can then have in mind her new obligation in mitzvah performance.
It’s customary on this day to bring the child to great people to receive brachos from them that the child merits to live a life of Torah and good deeds. Some go to a Kohein to receive birkas Kohanim as well. Since everything is influenced by the tone of the beginning, how this day is spent will have a role in shaping the child’s future avodas Hashem.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 761)
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