Our son, Nissim Shalom, recently became a bar mitzvah, and it is a living reminder for us of our family’s remarkable and ancient history. According to Jewish law, a Jewish boy reaching the age of 13 becomes a bar mitzvah and is responsible for assuming the mitzvot of Jewish adulthood. (A girl becomes a bat mitzvah at the age of 12.) Once a bar mitzvah, a person may be counted in a minyan (prayer quorum) and may lead religious services in the family and the community.
The bar mitzvah age was selected because it roughly coincides with physical puberty (Talmud Niddah, 45b). Prior to a child becoming a bar mitzvah, the child’s parents are responsible for the child’s actions, but b’nai mitzvah bear responsibility for their own actions with respect to Jewish ritual law, ethics and tradition and are able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life.
Upon a boy’s becoming a bar mitzvah, a celebration is made in his honour. The current scale of celebrations is much greater than it used to be in the mellah, or shtetl, of the old countries. In the past, this rite of passage was a joyous matter of course for every Jewish child without exception. In more recent times, however, this milestone is unfortunately not as absolute as it once was. Hence, we celebrate the occasion with more ostentation to highlight the cherished continuity of our heritage.
In the Moroccan community, we have many unique customs.
On the eve of the celebration, the bar mitzvah gets a haircut in the presence of his family and, as in every Moroccan celebration, traditional henna is put on his hand. On the celebratory day, it is customary for the family to help the bar mitzvah boy don tallit and tefillin, thereby showing him how dear this mitzvah is.
Many in the Moroccan community had the custom of taking the boy to a mikvah, stressing the idea of purity and holiness. Some had the custom of snatching the tefillin from the boy, so that the father would be obliged to redeem them with money, thereby demonstrating their importance.
When the bar mitzvah is called to the Torah, it is customary for the women to ululate “lulululu.” This custom originates from a kabbalistic source stating that, in every holy and happy occasion, the evil inclination (yetzer harah) is challenged to act. Thus, the women scream out in order to confuse and to chase away the yetzer harah.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the future of the Jewish people depends in large measure upon the bar (and bat) mitzvah event. Education, and particularly education of our young, has been and remains the means by which we continue to thrive, to exist, to ensure the future of Klal Israel. Is it any wonder that we celebrate with such gusto, as families and communities, this uniquely Jewish simchah by which we renew ourselves and our time in Jewish history?
Rabbi Ilan Acoca is a veteran rabbi and educator. He is the rabbi emeritus of Vancouver’s Congregation Beth Hamidrash and currently serves as the rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee-Bet Yosef, in Fort Lee, N.J., and rav beit hasefer of Yeshivat Ben Porat Yosef, in Paramus, N.J. He is the writer of the book The Sephardic Book of Why and has written hundreds of articles on various topics for different publications.