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How barmitzvahs boomed

The history of a popular ceremony

Bar Mitzvah: A History, Rabbi Michael Hilton,University of Nebraska, £22.99

    Barmitzvah has a fascinating history and Michael Hilton traces the texts showing how it grew from a French folk custom into the global and powerful ceremony of today. Since the first recognisable synagogue ceremony in medieval France, when the father may have spoken aloud ancient words of hope over his 13-year-old son, shaping them into the blessing formula “Blessed are you Eternal our God who has freed me from punishment because of him”, barmitzvah has grown from religious act of pious families into a social marker of aspiration, status and identity.

    I very much enjoyed the tracing of how a folk custom was taken over by the religious authorities who developed and regulated the event in various ways, even introducing sumptuary laws to control conspicuous consumption. Also, how its popularity waxed and waned and the ways the synagogues addressed this.

    As a community rabbi, I was heartened to see how the raising of teaching standards and of expectations of both the boy and his family to the values of community and ethical behaviour had brought the ceremony back from the brink at various times; the common modern rule of two years’ minimum of study before the ceremony is first seen in the 1700s to engage and guide unruly boys. Hilton looks also at the growth of batmitzvah as well as adult bnei mitzvah celebrations. This scholarly and readable book is an asset to all who are interested in how Jews continue to create Judaism, and the 30 pages of notes provide guidance for further study.

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