Sermon: On celebrating both Bar and Bat Mitzvah at 13

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 27 July 2019

V’ishah ki-tidor neder l’Adonai… b’veit avi’ha bi’nure’ha
“If a woman makes a vow to God… while still in her father’s household by reason of her youth.” (Numbers 30:4)

As Jack has spoken about, one of the overriding issues for us in our portion is its position on gender:  the distinction that the Torah makes between the vows of men, which would always stand and those of women that could be overruled; the control that men could and did exercise over women in Ancient Israel.

But there was another aspect of the text which was more interesting to the rabbis as, in the first centuries CE, they took the Torah and shaped it into the Judaism that we now live.

They were especially interested by that last bit – bi’nure’ha, ‘in her youth’.  What are the limits of her youth, they asked?   And similarly, as the whole section began ish ki yidor neder l’Adonai – if a man makes a vow to God – at what point does a boy become a man?  From what age are the vows of a boy binding? For the rabbis, who were engaged in the sacred task of building a practical Jewish law by which to live, and doing so out of the ambiguity of Torah, the key question was not just one of gender, but of age.

The Mishnah, the first compilation of Jewish law from approximately 200CE tells us the following: “A girl of the age of eleven years and one day, her vows must be examined. A girl of the age of twelve years and one day, her vows are valid.” (Mishnah Niddah 5:6)
Before 11, a girl could not make vows at all.  From 11 years old and throughout that year, any vows made would need to be probed, to ensure that she was aware of the significance of her words.  But, from 12 years and older, vows would stand without examination.

For a boy, the Mishnah states:  “A boy of the age of twelve years and one day, his vows must be examined. A boy of the age of thirteen years and one day, his vows are valid.”

For both cases, the Mishnah goes on to tell us, even if a younger child knows and understands the meaning of their actions, their vows are still not valid; and even if an older child does not, their vows still stand.

And thus, it was in relation to this morning’s Torah portion that the rabbis effectively set the age of legal maturity in our tradition.
They defined three periods – complete childhood in which even children with understanding are not able to commit themselves; a year before the age of majority, sometimes known as onat nedarim, the age of vows, in which a child’s words must be examined; and legal adulthood, from which young people are understood to have full responsibility for their promises.


Now, it will not have escaped your notice that built into this, also, is a gender asymmetry.  And this is an asymmetry with which many of us will still be familiar.
In those parts of the Jewish world where the rite celebrating transition into adulthood – that which came to be called Bar and Bat Mitzvah – is held at a different age for boys and for girls, 13 and 12, it is this textual tradition that is being reflected.

Often this is done proudly, as a positive statement about girls in community.  So it is interesting to explore the logic.  What did the rabbis see that made them begin adulthood younger for women than for men?

We might assume – in fact, it is often said – that it is based on real observation of the world, on empirical evidence about boys and girls, that it simply reflects the fact that girls mature earlier.

But whether this is true or not (and having worked with hundreds of B’nei and B’not mitzvah – at least in North West London, I am not convinced that this is a general rule that applies), whether this is now true or not, it wasn’t the rabbinic position.  The rabbis never make that claim.

Rather, our tradition actually bases this distinction on a midrash, a piece of rabbinic interpretation, a close reading of the text of the bible.  The source of the asymmetry – at least as the Talmud understands it – is a midrash on the second creation story.  Unlike in the first creation story where man and woman are created together on the sixth day, in the second man is created first and then woman is built out of the side of man, as a helpmeet for him, for it is not good for man to be alone.  So, the text tells us that God put the first man into a deep sleep, extracted a rib, then: “Va-yivein Adonai Elohim et ha-tzela…l’isha” – God built the rib taken from man into a woman.

That word va-yivein – ‘and God built’ demands midrashic attention, and one view relates it to the word binah – which means ‘understanding’ – and thus concludes “natan hakadosh baruch hu binah y’teirah ba-ishah yoter mi-ba-ish” – the Holy one gave greater understanding to the woman than to the man.

Incidentally, an alternative reading of va-yivein explains that it means that God arranged her hair into ‘binyata’, into plaits, before presenting her to Adam – which says something very different about gender assumptions.

So this was not empirical observation but a piece of rabbinic interpretation of Torah, and of a section of Torah which is itself deeply problematic, suggesting as it does a fundamentally subservient role of women to men, and a fixed model of gendered roles.  In fact, not just a fixity of roles, but a fundamentally different nature.  The midrash suggests not that women necessarily mature earlier, but that women have inherently more wisdom.  Which again we can argue about.

Many of the rabbis were uncomfortable with the position of the Mishnah with regard to legal maturity.  And this was for… empirical reasons.
Girls were, at that time, unlikely to be as educated, or as experienced, as boys, because of the societal roles they played.  And so, our tradition contains the idea that boys become legally mature before girls – to quote the midrash, “the way of a woman is to sit in her home, and the way of a man is to go out to the marketplace and learn understanding from others”; The Talmud explains that “a boy frequents his teacher’s house, so shrewdness enters him first”.  Some sages argued that the vow of a boy should be accepted at 12, and that of girls not until 13 because that reflected their context.

So the distinction in age of legal maturity in our tradition is somewhat arbitrary – certainly not a matter of principle, not unanimous, and absolutely not sacred.
In fact, probably the best explanation for the earlier legal maturity of a girl was that – put simply – they mattered less.  Their vows were limited by their lack of financial or legal autonomy, and the spheres in which they operated were not the public or religious sphere, so their vows were less likely to be significant.


All of which should leave us feeling deeply uncomfortable – and rightly so.

Which is why it is so important that we do not continue to make this distinction in our lives.  It is why it is so important that as a community we – and shuls like ours – celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvah with both boys and girls marking the transition at the same age in the same way.

This is sometimes a source of frustration for families who wish to celebrate earlier – living as they do with a dominant normative Orthodoxy they do not always understand; and it means that some of our girls in Jewish day schools will mark Bat Mitzvah almost two years later than some of their school mates.

But it is right.  It is right.
And any community that describes itself as progressive (with a big or a small P) or makes the claim that it is egalitarian, must surely do likewise.

V’ishah ki-tidor neder l’Adonai…
We are inheritors of a tradition which is of its context – a context in which, as Jack taught us, women were treated differently: unable to own property, not fully autonomous actors; a context in which there were clearly defined gendered roles, the public and religious spheres were for men alone; and a context in which boys and girls were not understood to be equal in obligation, in understanding, in development or in fundamental nature.

We may read these texts and study them – as we have this morning – but we must never be apologetic for them – they are what they are.  And we must be wary not to replicate them, not to allow their echoes to continue to seep into our modern Jewish practice.
As we mark transition into adulthood with our young people, we must be careful to make the positive statement that equality means equality.  For whatever people might tell themselves, to retain these echoes in any form – even when it appears to be a positive – to do so is to perpetuate the underlying myths about gender which they represent.