I just had the immense and surreal pleasure of celebrating my first baby becoming a bat mitzvah.
At some point in the course of all the preparations, it occurred to me to ask my rabbi about the bracha of baruch shep’tarani mei’onsho shel zeh. I knew this bracha is recited by the father of a bar mitzvah on the occasion of the son’s first aliyah, but realized I had no idea if or when it should be recited for a bat mitzvah. The rabbi directed me to a teshuva of Rav Ovadyah Yosef, and others pointed me to other sources. After doing a little research, I still didn’t really know. (It will not surprise anyone at all familiar with halacha to hear that there are different opinions, stemming from different ideas about the precise nature of the bracha and the precise moment and impetus for reciting it.) But the research left me with some thoughts about the nature of this milestone, with or without a bracha, and what it is that is actually changing in the child and in their relationship with their parents.
I learned that on a basic level, the source of the child’s joy, and the reason for the party from the child’s perspective, is the simple fact of becoming obligated in mitzvot. This is likely not what is first and foremost on a young man or woman’s mind; my daughter, for instance, might be thinking more about whether turning twelve entitles her to her own cellphone. But back in the day, precedent was found for these celebrations in the story in Kiddushin 31a about Rav Yosef, who said he would make a party for all the scholars if it would be halachically determined that a blind man such as himself is indeed obligated in mitzvos. Why? Because he had learned Rabbi Chanina’s principle that “one who is obligated and does is greater than one who is not obligated and does.” Rav Yosef intended to perform mitzvos whether obligated or not, and had initially thought his performance would be more valuable if he were not obligated; indeed, many of us assume at first that volunteer work is more commendable than doing the jobs we must do. However, if we think about it, it can often be harder to do a job we’re told to do than one we choose to do – and in that challenge, we find opportunity for greatness. So today, when a 12- or 13-year-old celebrates that ugh, what a drag, now I have to daven regularly and fast several times a year, and it won’t be fun anymore because now I have to do it – it is based on the precedent of Rav Yosef, who was so excited a the thought of such an opportunity that he wanted to throw a big bash.
But that is from the child’s perspective, or so we hope to ingrain in our children.
What about the parent?
While the newly minted young man or woman is celebrating greater responsibility, the parent is celebrating less. “Baruch she’p’tarani me’onsho shel zeh” – Blessed is the One who has exempted me from the punishment of this one. What does that mean? The way I usually hear people understand it is that the father is relieved he will no longer be held accountable for his son’s misdeeds: “Thank G-d he’s not my responsibility anymore!” This explanation is supported in traditional sources, including the phrasing of the midrash which seems to be the original source for this blessing: “Until 13, a father must deal with his son; after that, he recites….” (B”R 63:10). Now that the boy is a man, he is held responsible for his own conduct; he’s an adult, making his own choices, and the father can (gleefully?) absolve himself of responsibility. (Magen Avraham 225 s.k. 5)
There is, however, another explanation offered, according to which the blessing is offering precisely the opposite sentiment: “Blessed is the One who has exempted me from causing punishment to my son through my actions!” While a minor, the son was liable to suffer for his father’s wrongdoing; now, the son is an adult and will be subject to judgment on his own merits, independent of his father. (Levush O.Ch. 225, according to how later writers explain his view – though I urge reading his original text.) According to the Magen Avraham, it is about the father not being punished because of the son; in the Levush’s view, the father is relieved that the son will no longer be punished because of him.
As I learned these texts and considered my daughter’s approaching milestone, neither explanation really sat well with me.
I watched my child approach the age of responsibility, preparing to rejoice with her over her new potential for greatness, and was not filled with a sense of having done my part, or relief that she would no longer suffer for my inadequacies. If I had been given a psak to say the bracha, it would have been difficult to summon up the right kavana!
On the contrary, I felt overcome by a sense of my own (failed) responsibilities. Have I prepared her? Have I said everything I need to say to help her grow into a committed Jewish adult, and are we on the right path towards preparing her to one day be an adult in every way? Will I suffer watching her fall; will she suffer for my failings in her youth? Suddenly, we expect her to daven shacharis and mincha every day; have I established that routine for her, or instilled a sense of appreciation for tefilah so that she will want to establish that routine? I was supposed to be doing so much, but in my mind she was always just a kid; how is it that suddenly she’s an adult, halachically, and what was I supposed to do differently all those years?
Her milestone has served as a strong reminder not of my opportunities to shed responsibility as she grows and takes on more for herself, but of the opportunities I have, and probably will, let slip by. A reminder that I will always be responsible, halachically or not, for what I do right and what I do wrong as a parent, and she will always suffer for what I do wrong. I like to think she will also benefit and grow from the things I do right, but it’s still a pretty scary thought.
And maybe it’s important to have that scary thought, especially because actually, things are not really so bleak. Because actually, my responsibility towards her, the potential in our relationship, isn’t really over; it’s just changing.
The Mishna Berurah points out that even after a boy reaches bar mitzvah age, and the father recites this blessing over being absolved of responsibility, he’s not really free of any responsibility. After all, all Jews are responsible for one another; all Jews must pay attention to each other and try to find an appropriate way to redirect a fellow Jew in need of redirection. “Even though the matter of chinuch is no longer upon him… he is no less than the rest of Israel.”
Once a child reaches halachic maturity, they are full citizens of Bnei Yisrael, and our relationships with them must begin to change accordingly. We are no longer responsible to train them in mitzvah observance, as a matter of “education,” but we are certainly responsible to help them grow in any way we can, as one mature-ish individual to another. The Mishna Berurah’s comment inspired me to think of my daughter’s milestone as a stepping stone. On our path as mother and daughter, and her path as a budding Jewish woman, there’s no end to my responsibility towards her or even hers towards me; instead, we mark this moment on the path, stepping from one stage to the next. And we need that stepping stone, a moment to pause and consider where our next steps will take us.
I look forward to being able to talk to my daughter more and more on a gradually equalizing plane, having real thoughtful discussions and growing together. I love the idea that when I try to redirect her behavior, on the occasion that it might need redirection, we will be able to have a more sophisticated give-and-take. I hope that I will be able to influence her for the better, and I hope she will be able to help me grow as well. Little kids do that too, but it’s different with an adult, and different still with someone in that awkward in-between stage we call adolescence. As my daughter continues on her path towards adulthood, I am terrified of all I haven’t done and terrified of all there is still to do. But I am also excited, and I’m coming to appreciate this milestone as a reminder that I need to adjust how I think about her and about our relationship, and adjust how I think about my responsibilities towards her and how best to fulfill them. Always and forever, way beyond her twelfth birthday.
See Yabia Omer, section 6, Orach Chayim siman 29 and Am Mordechai 29 (Rabbi Mordechai Willig) for more on various aspects of bar/bat mitzvah celebrations.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.