The Age of Bar Mitzvah & Mental Maturity
Excerpted from “Tefillin: Wrapped in Majesty” by Rav Pinson 2013
The age of thirteen is the age of maturity, when a boy begins to become a man. This existential shift is also accompanied by actual physical changes in the body as the body is transitioning from that of a child into an adult (Nidah, 46a). This period is a major life cycle event and rite of passage. From this day forward, the young boy has embarked on the journey of becoming a man, a person with responsibility. From now on, the young boy has begun to become conscious of developing the ability to recognize right from wrong, what is good and what is bad, as well as a healthy sense of the consequences of ones actions.
Our reality is primarily an “emotionally” based reality and the way most people live life is through unconscious, reactive, emotional responses to external circumstances and stimulus. Instinct and emotional feelings, for better — as in love or connection — or worse — as in hate and fear — predominate most people’s decisions about life. It is often rare to find clarity of thought, expansive thinking and openness of mind. This is because the Keser — resolute purpose — and the mature deliberation of Mochin are “above” the world so to speak, they are not a natural given. We need to mature and develop in order to receive them. Our purpose — and the means to attain it — does not always seem so apparent and needs to be “revealed” to us.
When a child reaches the age of thirteen, their minds have developed sufficiently to rationalize decisions, to make choices, to exhibit some control over themselves — if they truly desire to. And they can therefore begin to put on tefillin with the intention to draw down a sense of their personal and spiritual purpose, as well as a revelation of a deeper sense of Mochin into their reality, filtered down through their Midos, until the truth of this higher revealed reality infuses their entire way of being and acting. For once there is a proper and prepared vessel, i.e. the maturity of heart and mind, one can then attempt to draw down Gadlus Ha’mochin or ‘expansive mind’.
Expansive Mind and Constricted Mind
Being that the age of thirteen is the beginning of maturity, it is also the age that tefillin — along with the recitation of their accompanying blessings — begin to be worn, starting from the day of the boy’s Bar Mitzvah.
As previously explored in great detail, through the Mitzvah of tefillin we draw down flashes and flows of novel and elevated Mochin, ‘intelligence’, and especially Gadlus Ha’Mochin, ‘big or expansive mind’, which is connected with mental maturity.
Overall, children experience Katnus Ha’Mochin, ‘small, constricted or immature mind’. They may be smart and intelligent, but overall, children lack a certain sense of maturity and the ability to perceive the big picture. The basic difference between these two states, between Gadlus and Katnus, is the difference between a mature adult and an immature child (Maamorei Admur Hazoken. Inyonim, p. 201). The ‘bigger’ or more expanded the mind is, the more inclusive it becomes, and the more it encompasses. An adult with a ‘mature mind’ is capable of contemplating simultaneous opposites and paradox, without breaking down into false conflict and duality. They can understand that the losing of one thing often means the gaining of something greater, perhaps in the future.
Give a child a dollar to buy candy and then tell them that if they give you back the dollar today, you will give them two dollars tomorrow, and see what happens. For the child, what is now is now. When a favorite toy is taken away from a child, or is broken, the child loses himself completely and it is hard to comfort them. You cannot explain to them that you will by them another, better toy tomorrow. They cannot sustain paradox, simultaneous opposites, or tension. Their minds are one dimensional, as it were.
A child has Mochin, ‘mind’. He can figure things out, he knows how to open the box to his toys and maybe even build them. But his Mochin is Katnus, ‘small’, immature, constricted.
Children cannot and should not put on tefillin.
The idea of tefillin is to draw down Mochin D’gadlus, ‘big picture mind’ into our lives. When a child reaches a mature age, he can and should put on tefillin.
Stages of Development
In the general development of the human being there are three main stages:
1. Ibbur — pregnancy
2. Yenikah — nursing
3. Mochin — mind, consciousness
But when seen in more specific detail, one can actually perceive five stages:
1. Zeri’ah — Sowing of the seed
2. Ibbur — Pregnancy
3. Leidah — Birthing
4. Yenikah — Nursing
5. Mochin —mind, consciousness.
These two separate but complementary models are the three/five stages of maturation, from conception all the way to full independence and self-awareness. In the process of development — whether physical, psychological, or spiritual — the preceeding stage is always Katnus in comparison to the proceeding stage, which is Gadlus. And the stage that is Gadlus in comparison to the preceeding stage is viewed as Katnus in relation to the next proceeding stage. This developmental process is illustrative of a movement from mere extension and dependence towards independence and uniqueness.
We will explore both of these models (the three and the five stage models of development) in greater depth throughout the following pages. As mentioned previously, they are each meant to be seen as complete in and of themselves, as well as meant to be overlayed and viewed in relation to each other. It is a standard approach of Kabbalah specifically, and Torah in general, to provide numerous lenses and perspectives through which to view a single idea or phenomenon. This associative technique is not meant to confuse the reader, but rather to give the honest seeker as many tools as possible with which to plumb the depths of their existence and experience of the world.
We will begin by taking a deeper look at the five-stage model of development.
Here are the five main stages in the process of becoming in greater detail:
1) Zeri’ah — Sowing of the seed, the moment of conception. This is the first stage towards birth and individuality. In the stage of Zeri’ah there is no individual, the individual is completely hidden and undetectable.
2) Ibbur — The second stage is impregnation, much like a fetus within the womb of the mother. Here the embryo has taken on form and its existence can now be detected. Yet, there is no independence and the child is one with his mother, literally an extension of the mother. Such as it says in the Gemara, the ‘fetus is like the limb of the mother’ (Chulin, 58a).
3) Leidah — The third stage is birthing. Now the infant is fully formed, and all can see that it exists as an independent entity, no longer “attached” (literally speaking) to the mother.
4) Yenikah — The fourth stage is nursing, where a child is outside the womb, starting to move above, yet, completely dependent on the mother for its survival.
5) Mochin — The fifth stage is Mochin or mind and maturity, where the child becomes independent, rational, and understanding of self and others.
These five general stages of early human development correspond to the five times the word Ohr, ‘Light’, appears in the Torah during the creation story. Ohr is the first ‘thing’ to be created, and thus the model of creation.
1) “Let there be light” (Bereishis, 1:3). This is Zeriah, the “sowing of the seed”, expressing the potential for desired conception.
2) “And there was light” (ad loc. 1:3). This is Ibbur, the time of “impregnation”. The light exists, but is still hidden, gestating.
3) “G-d saw that the light was good” (ad loc. 1:4). This is Leidah, the “birthing” stage. There is now an ability to perceive and experience the light, as it is birthed into existence.
4) “G-d separated the light from darkness” (ad loc. 1:4). This is Yenikah, the “nursing” stage. This process is characterized by the completion of the dependent stage, which occurs towards the end of the nursing stage, when the child is ‘separated’ from its mother and weaned off of the mother’s milk.
5) “G-d called the light Day” (ad loc. 1:5). This is Mochin, the independent stage wherein the child begins to develop a ‘mind’ of their own. The initial light now becomes a potential source of light, as now the child may too become a parent.
We will now return to the three-stage model of development. Corresponding to the three main stages of development outlined above (Ibbur, Yenikah, Mochin), there are also three basic levels of soul and spiritual complexity through which the child evolves and enters into throughout their life.
The three basic levels of soul are Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshama.
1. Nefesh is connected with Ibbur
2. Ruach is connected with Yenikah
3. Neshamah is connected with Mochin…
These three developmental states and levels of soul — Ibbur/Nefesh, Yenikah/Ruach, and Mochin/Neshamah — also correspond to three bodily positions:
1) Lying Down
Lying down is Ibbur. This represents a state of zero independence, where the child is not even able to sit up on its own. Left to its own devices, a young infant can only lie down. While in the position of lying down, the head (i.e. the mind) and the rest of the body, even the feet, are on the same horizontal level, which represents that there is no dominance or chain of command of mind over instinct. In this alignment, all cognitive capacities are considered the same. This is the consciousness of Nefesh or pure instinct.
Next step is the movement from lying down to sitting up. This is a major development for a child, which requires a modicum of strength, balance, and self-control. Here the child is gaining more independence. They are big enough to sit up by themselves. This is the state of Yenikah. When the body is in a sitting position, the most prominent and revealed part of the body is the torso, the seat of the heart and metaphorical home of our emotions. This is the consciousness of Ruach — emotional reality.
The final step is to stand up erect and full upright. This is a unique position of the human being. A standing position suggests that there is a flow from top to bottom. There is a movement from the mind, to the heart, to the instincts and actions. The mind dictates. This is advanced Mochin. This is the consciousness of Neshamah…
Bar Mitzvah as a Rite of Passage for both Father and Son
According to the Zohar, On the day of a boy’s Bar Mitzvah, we need to make a festive meal, as on the day of ones wedding (Zohar Chadash, Bereishis, 10). It is a joyous time, and one that should be celebrated (Magen Avraham, Orach Chaim, 225:4). But like all transitions in life, even the joyous ones, there is always a measure of gentle sadness.
The age of Bar Mitzvah is a transitional stage, and as is the case with every transition, there is a mix of the joy of moving on, as well as the bittersweet melancholy of leaving “what was” behind. The child is now officially growing up and becoming a man. He is no longer in the stage of Yenikah, ‘suckling’, both feeding off of and clinging to the parents, almost attached to their hip, as it were. Now begins the awkward stage of adolescence. The young boy will go off to Yeshiva and may even board and live away from home. Eventually, the young boy will become a fully-grown man and move away from their parental home and establish their own household. So while there is great joy, having merited to witness and participate in the growth of this young boy, there is also a sense of sadness on the part of the parents.
There is an inner tension that parents feel when their children begin maturing. On the one hand, the sense of pride and perhaps relief to have brought them to this place. And yet, on the other hand, an underlining sense of anxiety, knowing that the nurturing period of their child’s life, which began at birth, is now coming to a close. This transitional stage of the parents sets in motion an awareness of their own mortality and ageing.
When a boy reaches the age of thirteen, growing up and becoming Bar Mitzvah, he is becoming essentially “old enough to protect” and to be responsible. It is now time, our sages tell us, “for the father to buy him tefillin” (Sukkah, 42a).
And so, besides the Bar Mitzvah celebration, which is written about in the Zohar and is considered a Seudas Mitzvah, ‘a meal of a Mitzvah’ (Yam Shel Shlomo), as the boy is becoming a man, it is the father who needs to buy him the tefillin. The actual purchasing of the tefillin by the father marks, acknowledges, and in essence, eases this transition.
A child who is Bar Mitzvah is old enough to protect and respect the sanctity of the Torah and its Mitzvos, including his tefillin, and thus his father buys him a pair. As it is written, “When the child turns thirteen, and not before, his father buys him a pair of tefillin” (Itur. See: Beis Yoseph, O’C, 37). There is a strong emphasis on the father buying the tefillin for his son (Tosefos, Erchin 2b).
The father’s act of purchasing and passing on the tefillin to his son at the time of Bar Mitzvah is the passing of the torch of Torah, of tradition, of heritage, of history, of eternity, and indeed of our immortality. It is a testament, an Os, of our sense of and connection to eternity in the face of the temporary. This rite of passage — buying, giving, and helping the Bar Mitzvah put on the tefillin for the very first time — is the Torah’s way of lifting us all — as individuals, as a family, and as a community — to the highest heights of Eternity, Immortality and Transcendence.
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