What is Bar Mitzvah
Bar (or bat) Mitzvah in Hebrew translates to “son (daughter) of commandment in English. It means that a Jewish boy or girl is responsible from then on for properly observing the commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah.
A Jewish boy automatically becomes Bar Mitzvah when he turns 13 years old, and a girl at age 12. (In general, girls tend to mature earlier than boys.)
From Genesis 25:27 we can learn that a boy (what is called katan) becomes an adult (what is called gadol) at 13.
וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים׃
When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob became a mild man, raising livestock.
ויגדלו הנערים, “The lads grew up;” Rashi comments on this statement that they had attained the age of 13 at this point. During the years prior to this, they did not show signs of developing radically different from one another. Until that age, they had both been tutored by their father and been trained in how to become wholesome personalities, as pointed out in B’reshit Rabbah 63,10. It is pointed out there that as of that age, the father may thank the L-rd that he has been relieved of the burden of raising his children. [Every Jewish father nowadays recites this blessing at his son’s bar mitzvah. Ed.] The deeper meaning of this is that from that day on a Jewish father is no longer held accountable for sins committed by his children.
Does Bar Mitzvah also apply to Noahides
There are two different opinions.
One from Rosh; he is of the opinion that the obligation for Noahides is determined by comprehension of the commandments. Age, according to his opinion, is irrelevant.
In his Tosafos to Sanhedrin 69b, he writes that prior to Sinai an 8-year-old who manifested signs of puberty would be considered an ish, man.
This is particular because it would mean that the law would be stricter for a Noahide than for a Jew. While we learn from Sanhedrin 59b-15:
לבני נח ולא נשנית בסיני לישראל נאמרה ולא לבני נח: אדרבה מדלא נישנית בסיני לבני נח נאמרה ולא לישראל ליכא מידעם דלישראל שרי ולעובד כוכבים אסור
It is further stated in the baraita that a mitzva that was stated with regard to the descendants of Noah and was not repeated at Sinai was stated for the Jewish people and not for the descendants of Noah. The Gemara raises an objection: On the contrary, from the fact that it was not repeated at Sinai, clearly it can be derived that it was stated for the descendants of Noah and not for the Jewish people. The Gemara answers: There is nothing that is permitted to a Jew and forbidden to a gentile.
The other opinion comes from Rashi: he is of the opinion that for Noahides too, the age of 13 is the age at which young adults are held responsible for observing their 7 Noahides commandments.
We already saw that Chizkuni points out that Rashi’s comments on Genesis 25:27 are that Esau and Jacob came of age at 13. Esau was a Noahide.
Rashi in Nazir 29b-3 also gives age 13 as the age a person is responsible for his actions. The Divine Code (4e Edition p. 67) is saying that the physical characteristic which Rashi explains as being important for obligation in the mitzvot is determined by age: i.e. age 13 for boys and 12 for girls. So the age of maturity and the responsibility to observe the mitzvot is the same for Jews and non-Jews/ Noahides.
The Rambam seems to agree with Rashi. He says that every child from birth to age 13 is called a katan – i.e. someone who is not an adult and that when he speaks of the age of maturity he always means 13 years. (Misneh Torah 2:10 and 2:27)
Rabbi Moshe Weiner writes in “The Divine Code” (4e Edition p. 67):
A Gentile is not obligated in precepts of the Noahide Code or their liability until he is knowledgeable and responsible for his actions. This age is 13 full years for a male and 12 full years for a female (provided that they have produced two public hairs). Some opinions say that even a minor who is knowledgeable prior to this age is responsible. One who is not knowledgeable, such as a deaf mute, one who is mentally incompetent, or a minor, is exempt from any liability.
An interesting point is made in the book “The Noahide Laws” (A project of Yeshiva Pirchei Shosahnim).
When a Noahide wants to convert to Judaism and he is under 13, the conversion becomes complete only when he is 13. If a Noahide is considered an adult at a younger age, why should he not be able to fully convert to Judaism earlier?
This book calls this milestone for Noahides, not a Bar/bat Mitzvah but (a Noahide) Bar/ bat Chiyuv (Obligation).
Although the age of 13 (12) years indicates the age of maturity, where one is thus responsible for observing the Mitzvot, it does not mean that this is the age that should be for marriage in our current society.
The Divine Code 4e edition p. 399:
It is fitting not to allow boys at the age of 13 or girls at the age of 12 (or less) to enter into marriage, as most people at those respective ages do not have the maturity to accept upon themselves a bond of marriage, and it would be closer to promiscuity (even if a marriage was contracted). Rather, a higher minimum age should be set by communities at which to allow and recognize marriages. This should be the age at which most people in that community can be considered as having maturity and responsibility for their actions. Nowadays this is usually around the age of 17.
I have only come across this designation in the book “The Noahide Laws”. Personally, I think it makes a nice distinction between Bar Mitzvah – where the 613 commandments become obligatory and the 7 Noahide commandments and their details.
How one wants to shape this milestone is for each person and family to fill in personally.
In any case, it is important to familiarize children at an early age with the stories of the Tenach and the moral values and standards that go with a pious life. AskNoah gives 7 verses from the Tenach that are good for children to memorize. These verses can be found in the AskNoah prayer booklet or online, where it is possible to download also two beautiful posters for this purpose.
For more information on Birthdays see: Meaningful Birthdays by AskNoah
By Angelique Sijbolts
The Divine Code by Rabbi Moshe Weiner
The 7 Noahides Laws
With thanks to Dr. Michael Schulman and Rabbi Tani Burton for the feedback