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The Conceptual and Anthropological History of Bat Mitzvah

Two Lexical Paths and Two Jewish Identities

Hizky Shoham

Keywords: anthropological history; birthday; consumer culture; modern Jewish history; rites of passage

This article aims to form a conversation between conceptual history and anthropological history, taking bat mitzvah, the coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish girls, as a test case. The term is shown to have two main conceptual meanings: first, the new religious status that a Jewish girl acquires—that of an adult obligated by the precepts of Jewish law—and second, the event or ritual marking this milestone. The close examination of the concept’s various meanings in different Jewish languages tracks its development from its hesitant beginnings in the nineteenth century to its emergence as a key concept that refers to a central ceremony in the Jewish world of the twentieth century. From that point, the article follows the two lexical paths that bat mitzvah has traveled, in the United States and in Israel, and highlights a basic anthropological difference in the ceremony’s social function.

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