Words to Transition By
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by Rabbi Michelle Dardashti March 3, 2011

 

"Thank God I'm through with this!"

This is the typical "blessing" recited by an overwhelming number of Jewish youth upon completion of their bar/bat mitzvah portion and prayers. To the great chagrin of their teachers and leaders, approximately half of Hebrew school students check out of synagogue life upon becoming b'nei mitzvah. But dreaded as these words are by Jewish educators, they are in fact almost identical to those placed by the Sages in the mouths of Jewish parents at this very dramatic moment in their child's development.  

"Baruch shepetarani mionsho she-la-zo!"  Literally translated, these words mean: "Blessed is the one who has released me from the punishment of this one."  Understandably, parents are relieved by their children's reaching this milestone, with the mega-events that bar/bat mitzvah celebrations have become. It's not hard to imagine mom or dad expressing gratitude that the studying, inviting, shopping, booking and seating-arranging that went into preparing for the day are finally just about behind them. 

But it's unlikely that this was what the rabbis of old had in mind. Let's recall that at the time this little prayer was composed, children - and then, of course, only male children - became b'nei mitzvah simply by nature of reaching 13 years of age. This naturally occurring event was marked quite simply by the birthday boy being called up for an aliyah to the Torah in the presence of his community.
   The rabbis' intent in composing these words was to help parents give voice to the alleviation of their metaphysical anxieties: the Sages provided parents
(in their day, fathers) with words to express their thanks for no longer being to blame if their children slacked in observance of God's commands. 

The Mishna records a teaching of Rabbi Yehudah ben Tema that "at thirteen, [one gains] responsibility for the mitzvot" (Pirkei Avot 5:23), and later midrash reflects what this means for parents: "You are responsible for your son until he is thirteen; then say 'Blessed be God who has rid me of responsibility for this [my child]'" (Genesis Rabbah 63:10). These words eventually became an official part of the ceremony marking a child's becoming bar mitzvah.

"Baruch shepetarani!"  "Blessed is the one who has released me!"

What relevance do these words bear to our lives?  To what extent do they resonate with our experiences?  Considering the "shepetarani" formula compels us ultimately to ask: To what extent do we take seriously the institution of the bar/bat mitzvah as marking our children's a) responsibility for the mitzvoth, and b) entrance into adulthood?

The second piece of this question is easier to tackle than the first.  In contemporary society, I think it safe to say that 13-year-olds are widely viewed as kids. There is no way in which American law or culture considers 13-year-olds to be adults. Sixteen (the age at which teens can drive), or 18 (the age at which they vote, enlist and often leave the home for college), are the ages we much more naturally associate with adulthood.

These realities highlight how very countercultural the bar/bat mitzvah rite of passage is today. This is often overlooked. While by all accounts, our 12- and 13-year-old children are still just that - children - the Jewish tradition affirms otherwise. That there has not been a mass movement to alter the bar/bat-mitzvah age to better suit our times implies that the idea of publicly marking a crucial shift in our children's relationship with Judaism at this stage in development is one we value. 

 Out of discomfort with its unilateral renunciation of parental responsibility, many congregations have either removed the "shepetarani" formula from the bar/bat mitzvah celebration or crafted a softer, less literal translation. Yet the blessing's message of newly acquired power on the part of children lies at the heart of what it means to become b'nei mitzvah, or "children of the commandments."  The words speak to a belief in the institution of the bar/bat-mitzvah as marking the age at which we expect our children to be forging their own independent relationships with Jewish tradition, observance and community and, in doing so, deepening their relationship with God.

When Jewish children are born, it is the parents' obligation to enter them into the covenant, or "brit." At a brit/bris ceremony - and today, in more egalitarian communities, at welcoming ceremonies for both baby boys and girls - parents declare their obligation and intention to raise their child to a life of Torah u'maasim-tovim (Torah and good deeds); essentially, a life imbued with and made meaningful through the mitzvot. The bar/bat mitzvah ceremony provides a framework for parents to step back and allow their children to now consciously enter the covenant, to enter into relationship with God and the Jewish people of their own free will. The "shepetarani" blessing captures, if in less positive language than we would like, a moment in which parents hand over to children the reins of their heritage. We have an opportunity to reframe our understanding of it to express: "Blessed is the one who has privileged me to entrust the tradition to this one!"

Synagogue schools and parents invested in children not uttering their own version of "thank God I'm done with that!" upon becoming b'nei mitzvah should make space, as part of bar/bat-mitzvah preparation, for parents and children to explore the meaning of this blessing, in its original form and usage, and to wrestle with what it means for them personally. 

There are indeed burdens that parents are released from through their children's maturation; perhaps the bar/bat mitzvah is a public goodbye to the years of temper tantrums, bed-wetting and endlessly picking up after toys. But it can also be viewed as something of a formal acknowledgement of the thrills (and challenges) that accompany parents' budding relationship with a human being who is truly growing into his/her own. So too, for the b'nei mitzvah, the day indeed marks a release of sorts. They are no longer children studying toward a day or a one-time event; they are young adults whose matured engagement with Judaism will bring new thrills and challenges. 

 

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Michelle Dardashti is the Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan (where the "Baruch Shepetarani" is indeed wrestled with as part of bar/bat mitzvah education). She holds Rabbinic Ordination and an MA in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

 

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