Our son, Nissim Shalom, has recently became a bar mitzvah, and it is a living reminder for us of our family’s remarkable and ancient history.
According to Jewish law, a Jewish boy reaching the age of 13 becomes a bar mitzvah and is responsible for assuming the mitzvot of Jewish adulthood. (A girl becomes a bat mitzvah at the age of 12.) Once a bar mitzvah, a person may be counted in a minyan (prayer quorum) and may lead religious services in the family and the community.
The bar mitzvah age was selected because it roughly coincides with physical puberty (Talmud Niddah, 45b). Prior to a child becoming a bar mitzvah, the child’s parents are responsible for the child’s actions. At this age, b’nai mitzvah bear responsibility for their own actions with respect to Jewish ritual law, ethics and tradition and are able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life.
Upon a boy’s becoming a bar mitzvah, a celebration is made in his honor. The current scale of celebrations is much greater than it used to be in the mellah, or shtetl, of the old countries. In the old days, this rite of passage was a joyous matter of course for every Jewish child, without exception. In more recent times, however, this religious milestone is unfortunately not as absolute as it once was. Hence, we celebrate the occasion with more ostentation to highlight the cherished continuity of our heritage.
In the Moroccan community, we have many unique customs.
On the eve of the celebration, the bar mitzvah gets a haircut in the presence of his family and, as in every Moroccan celebration, traditional henna is put on his hand.
On the celebratory day, it is customary for the family to help the bar mitzvah boy to don tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries containing parchment scrolls inscribed with verses from our Torah), thereby showing him how dear this mitzvah is.
Many have the custom to take the boy to a mikvah (ritual bath), stressing the idea of purity and holiness.
Some have the custom of snatching the tefillin from the boy, so that the father would be obliged to redeem them with money, thereby demonstrating their importance.
When the bar mitzvah is called to the Torah, it is customary for the women to ululate “lulululu.” This custom originates from a Kabbalistic source stating that in every holy and happy occasion the evil inclination (yetzer harah) is challenged to act. Thus, the women scream out in order to confuse and to chase away the yetzer harah.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the future of the Jewish people depends in large measure upon the bar (and bat) mitzvah event. Education, and particularly education of our young, has been and remains the means by which we continue to thrive, indeed to exist, as Moshe Rabbenue has toiled to do, thus ensuring the future of Klal Israel. Is it any wonder that we celebrate with such gusto, as families and communities, this uniquely Jewish simcha by which we renew ourselves and our time in Jewish history?
By Rabbi Ilan Acoca
Rabbi Ilan Acoca is the spiritual leader of the Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee.