"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Managing Editor, AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org


"How is the Bar Mitzvah ceremony viewed in Kabbalah and how is the significance of this milestone explained versus the traditional Jewish understanding of a boy becoming a man and obligated to perform mitzvot?"


First of all, there are no teachings in Kabbalah that are versus traditional Jewish teachings. Kabbalah comes to deepen them, strengthen them, enhance and expand them; not to deny them.

Second, I don't think there is any mention in Kabbalah of a bar mitzvah ceremony, although of course the significance of reaching that age is widely discussed

Bar Mitzvah is, as you say, the day a boy is bestowed the status of a man in Jewish law, and becomes fully obligated to perform all the mitzvot that he possibly can. Kabbalah helps us to understand why at age 13. At the same time that he enters his teenage years and has to deal with all those hormones, he also receives his G-dly soul in full strength. Before bar mitzvah he does not yet have all that he needs to fulfill his spiritual potential.

Therefore, Bar Mitzvah according to Kabbalah is supposed to mark a turn towards the spiritual, a greater awareness of and commitment to the values and imperatives of the Torah that G-d gave to the Jewish people, thereby enabling one's spiritual aspect to overcome one's material aspect.

(Side point: Kabbalah and Chassidut mention a perspective from which 13th birthday is arbitrary, a Torah decree. According to this, for non-Jews one's 13th birthday would not necessarily be a date of significance; onset of adulthood would be tied to the actual onset of puberty, which can vary greatly from child to child, and according to present science, from generation to generation.)

Back to bar mitzvah. Given the above understanding of the significance of the occasion, the aliyah and the weekly reading and reading the Haftorah are not the primary observance according to Kabbalah, because while they may indicate a rite of passage, they do not necessarily inculcate a sense of commitment to advance further. That is why for so many Jewish boys, Judaism ends at Bar Mitzvah instead of beginning there.

Rather what is considered the prime mitzvah of the occasion is tefillin, and not just wrapping them one time and then forgetting about it, but receiving a pair for his very own, to put on every day except Shabbat and Yomtov.

A 'statement' by the parents that will greatly influence the boy's Jewish future in this regard is whether he receives the most inexpensive pair possible (especially if that contrasts with the budget for the party) or the best quality pair available even if the cost is much higher -- best according to the standards of Jewish law, not just an aesthetically pleasing container-bag. And of course, encouragement to indeed don them on a regular basis.

This is not the forum to get into the Kabbalistic significance of the commandment of tefillin . One resource easily available in English for the mystical aspects of tefilin that I can point you to is chapter 41 of Tanya (a basic book of chasidic/kabbalistic thought), where it is explained what happens in the spiritual realms when he puts on tefillin, and the significance of each of the four Torah sections contained within tefilin, relative to each other.)

As I said, tefillin and Shabbat do not go together. What many do, if the birthday is earlier in the week, is to go to a synagogue that has a daily weekday minyan, and put on tefilin with the blessing for the first time there, recite the Shma Yisrael prayer/statement of faith, which mentions tefilin, and say all the communal responses together with the minyan. You might want to sponsor some modest (or not-so-modest) refreshments in honor of the occasion. If it should be a Monday or Thursday, when the Torah is read, he can put be called to the Torah too. If his birthday falls on Shabbat, he can have his first aliyah on Shabbat, and then go to synagogue on Sunday for tefilin.

Shabbat is the time for a big Kiddush in his honor, because that is when it is much easier for everyone to be there. If he had an aliyah earlier in the week, that is not a reason that he should not have one on Shabbat in front of everyone. However, since as I said, according to Kabbalah a bar mitzvah should be an entrance into and strengthening of the spiritual side of Judaism.So what could be more opposite this goal than the big bash of food, drink and entertainment that some proud Jewish parents splurge on that even Hollywood loves to spoof? (This last is a general remark that I couldn't resist. I am by no means attributing such extravagance to you. How can I know what your plans are? Anyhow, the tone of your letter clearly implies otherwise.)

A good idea is together with your son to invite some (very) poor people to the party, just so they can have a good meal. If that doesn't work for you, or even if it does, a nice thing to do is to organize all the leftover food in a way that poor people can benefit from it. Maybe your son's friends would want to help in this. The rabbi can help with both these ideas, I am sure. Also, your son should be encouraged [strongly] to give a significant amount of his newly attained wealth for tzedakah/charity, at least ten percent.

Mazaltov, mazaltov! May you gain much Jewish nachas (pleasure) from him, and may he grow up to be a light within the Jewish people and to the world at large.

Thank you for writing. We hope our answer has been helpful.
Shalom and Blessings from Safed our holy city.
Yerachmiel Tilles


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