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Question: I find myself in a very delicate situation and am calling upon your halachic expertise. I am the rabbi in a small town of a very close-knit community with a small Orthodox minyan. We have two boys who are exactly the same age and will reach the age of bar mitzvah next year on the same day. My question is: How do we schedule two bar mitzvahs in shul on the same Shabbos as well as two catered affairs on their birthday? Even though they are friends, both families seem to be in pain over the potential conflict.

The Rabbi in a Small Community

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Answer: At the outset I am very flattered that you put your trust in me. My response, of course, will be based on our halachic sources. You are right in intimating that whatever you do, one of the families might feel slighted. I hope, however, that they understand the importance of abiding by Torah values and that the following discussion will help you render a decision that both parties will find acceptable.

The Torah never states explicitly that a person must fulfill the mitzvos at age 13, but Pirkei Avot (5:21) states:

“[R. Yehuda b. Teima] used to say, ‘A five-year-old for Scripture, a 10-year-old for Mishnah, a 13-year-old for the commandments, a 15-year-old for Talmud, an 18-year-old for marriage, a 20-year-old for the pursuit [of a vocation or, alternately, military service], a 30-year-old for full strength, a 40-year-old for understanding, a 50-year-old for [the ability to give] counsel, a 60-year-old for mature age, a 70-year-old for ripe old age, an 80-year-old for [Divinely endowed] strength; a 90-year-old stoops, a 100-year-old – it is as though he has passed away and ceased from this world.’”

This mishnah presents man’s entire life cycle, in large part, in terms of mental capacity. Thus, 13 is the age at which we are mentally mature enough to be responsible to fulfill the mitzvot.

Rashi (ad loc.) cites as a source for this assertion Bereishit 34:25, which concerns Dinah after she had been abducted by Shechem: “Va’yehi va’yom hashlishi bi’yotam ko’avim, va’yikchu shnei bnei Yaakov, Shimon v’Levi, achei Dinah ish charbo va’yavo’u al ha’ir betach va’yahargu kol zachar – And it came to pass on the third day, when they [the inhabitants of the city who had undergone circumcision in order to intermarry with Jacob’s family] were in pain, that two of Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, took each man his sword and came upon the city confidently, and killed every male.”

Both Shimon and Levi are referred to as “ish,” and Rashi calculates that Levi had to have been 13 years old at this time. We also know that “ish” must mean a man because Bamidbar 5:6 states, “Ish o isha ki ya’asu mikol chatot ha’adam lim’ol ma’al ba’Shem, v’ashma ha’nefesh hahee – A man or a woman who commits any of man’s sins, by committing treachery toward Hashem, and that person is guilty.” A person is not guilty until he’s a man or a woman, or, in the words of the Torah, an “ish” or an “isha.”

Rashi also mention Shemot 30:14 and 38:26, which use the words “miben esrim shana v’ma’ala – from 20 years of age and up.” That is the age at which men were counted in the census in the desert. Rashi connects these words to the words “ben esrim lirdof – a 20-year-old for the pursuit” the mishnah above, interpreting them as 20 being the age at which beit din pursues and punishes a person for transgressions. Thirteen, though (or 12 for a female), is when a person becomes an adult and responsible for his actions. This principle is a halacha given to Moshe at Mt. Sinai and transmitted to us.

Avot D’Rabbi Natan quotes Pirkei Avot (2:11), “Ein hara v’yetzer hara v’sinat ha’briyot motzi’in et ha’adam min ha’olam – An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of creatures drives a man out of the world” and asks: How does the evil inclination cause one to be driven out of this world? It answers: Our sages (see Sanhedrin 91b) taught us that the yetzer hara is greater than the yetzer tov since it is present as soon as the child is born and prods him to sin. Nonetheless, we do not punish a child until he is 13, when his good inclination enters him. Only then do we address the youngster, “Reika, empty one, such and such is the punishment decreed in the Torah for violating G-d’s commandments!”

Thus, we see that at the age of 13, a child does not only attain maturity; he is also endowed with a gift, a yetzer tov. The Zohar Chadash (10b) states that R. Shimon bar Yochai was in an elevated mood on the day his son, R. Eleazar, became bar mitzvah and prepared a feast to which he invited his friends. When asked about it, he remarked, “On this day my son Eleazar has been given a holy neshama [i.e., the yetzer tov].”

The Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) praises Dama son of Netina, a heathen from Ashkelon who was abundantly rewarded for honoring his father even though he hadn’t been commanded to honor him. R. Chanina comments, “If one who is not commanded [to honor his parents] yet does so is thus [rewarded], how much more [rewarded] is one who was commanded [to honor his parents] and does so!” To this statement, R. Yosef – who was blind – rejoined, “Now that I have heard R. Chanina’s dictum…I would make a banquet for the Rabbis [who maintained that a blind person must fulfill the commandments].”

Gadol ha’metzuveh v’oseh mi’mi she’eino metzuveh v’oseh – Greater is the one who was commanded and did than the one who wasn’t commanded and did.” Being commanded is thus cause for great rejoicing.

Nowhere does the Talmud directly refer to a se’udah or any type of celebration on the occasion of becoming bar mitzvah. Halachic codes, though, note that the day on which one becomes bar mitzvah is a special day. The Rema, in his commentary Darchei Moshe (to the Tur, Orach Chayim 225) and in his annotations to the Mechaber (ad loc.), quotes a remark of the Maharil in the name of the Mordechai (which also appears in Bereishit Rabbah 63, Parashat Toldot) noting that a father says, “Baruch she’patrani me’onsho shel zeh – Blessed is He who has freed me from the punishment due this [boy].”

This comment is included in the Rema’s section on the laws of blessings, in the part dealing with the laws regarding Shehecheyanu, a beracha recited only due to some special occasion or situation.

Since this blessing doesn’t appear in the Talmud, he advises that it be said without Shem u’Malchut, that is, without uttering G-d’s holy name and His reign over the universe.

(To be continued)

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