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Ma Tovu Oha-leh-cha Ya'akov, How Goodly Are Your Tents O, Jacob? 

06/26/2023 09:03:31 AM

Jun26

The terms bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah and b'nai mitzvah are possibly the most incorrectly used terms in popular usage. I too have been guilty of using these colloquialisms that are technically incorrect. The first thing to understand is that the term bar mitzvah is in itself a descriptive noun referring to a person, not a party or ceremony.  (ie. "I am going to a bar mitzvah".)

The term bar mitzvah refers to a male who has reached the age of responsibility for the mitzvot (commandments). A male becomes a bar mitzvah upon reaching his13th birthday on the Hebrew calendar. A female becomes a bat mitzvah upon reaching the age of 12 or, according to some authorities, 12 and a half. The terms bar and bat mitzvah are not verbs to which a suffix attached as in "bar mitzvahed". One BECOMES or BECAME a bar or bat mitzvah due to age, not because of a status conferred by a rabbi or cantor.  So to say "Rabbi Blumenthal bar mitzvahed me" would be technically incorrect. Rather one should say:  I became a bar mitzvah in Temple Beth Sholom. Or, Rabbi Blumenthal prepared me to celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah. 

Another common error is to incorrectly pluralize the term bar or bat mitzvah. B'nai mitzvah is the plural of bar or bat mitzvah. One person cannot be "b'nai mitzvah". We use the term b'nai mitzvah when referring to MORE  than one young person, males or mixed gender,  who have reached their 13th birthday. For example: David and Susie are now b'nai mitzvah. In Hebrew when we form a construct such as bar mitzvah and pluralize it, we do not add a plural ending to the second word. The word "mitzvah" remains in the singular. Therefore we do not say "b'nai mitzvot" as some people do. If you want to refer to more than one female who is or is becoming bat mitzvah, you would refer to them as "b'not mitzvah". 

Modern life however has posed new challenges. For instance,  what do you call a young person who has reached the age of mitzvot in a way that avoids attaching gender?  Do you use plural language (b'nai mitzvah)? Judaism is always evolving and therefore our language is constantly evolving. A fairly recent trend is to use the term "b'mitzvah" as a non-gendered title. It is actually a very clever term. The Hebrew prefix "b" can be translated as either "in" or "with". When we say "b'mitzvah" we are saying that a youngster is now "WITH or IN mitzvah" and we are doing it with non gendered language. 

All new language takes time to get used to. I  make a concerted effort to refer to a couple of people I know by their preferred plural pronouns rather than he/her, him/ his. Using preferred pronouns and language helps us as a community to affirm the individuality of our members.

This shabbat we will read the portion of Balak in which the prophet Bilaam is inspired by seeing the tents of Jacob. Accepting individuals with new forms of identity enlarges the tent of Jacob.  It is the way we as a Jewish community honor our shared values as Jews while allowing  for the differences that a community needs in order to thrive and grow.

Thu, February 22 2024 13 Adar I 5784