When Does One Become a Jewish Adult? A View from the Torah
I have heard people say that there is no concept of adolescence in Judaism – that one becomes an adult at 13 and is a fully part of societal obligations. Indeed, there is a common saying that pops up around bar mitzvah celebrations: “Today, you are a Jewish man/adult!” Yet, we do not actually regard a 13-year old, or 14-year old, etc. as fully being an adult. So, when does one become an adult in Judaism?
Let’s first look at 13 as a significant age: it most notably appears as significant in mAvot 5.21, where, in listing various stages in a Jewish man’s life (to the specific exclusion of a Jewish woman’s life), it says that a boy is obligated in keeping the commandments at age 13 (yes, this particular text is about boys/men). (Also, by the way, the sole discussion in the Talmud where the term בר מצוה (bar mitzvah) occurs is found on bBava Kamma 15a.) It is not clear how much of “a man” or “an adult man” (or “an adult Jew”) the Talmud considers one who is 13 and above, beyond obligated in commandments, etc.
So, where else can we look to see in Jewish texts to discover what Judaism may have to say about when one becomes an adult? The Torah.
In the Torah, 13 goes unmentioned entirely as a significant age. However, there is another age which is mentioned: 20. Twenty years of age is mentioned as an age at which people are counted in the national census in Exodus 30:11-16, Numbers 1:1-3, and Numbers 26:1-4. Also, we see in the vows offerings (Leviticus 27:1-8) that 20 is also another societally significant age in the Torah.
In considering the aforementioned, it would seem that Judaism views adulthood as beginning at 20, not 13. So what do we do with 13? Well, it would seem that 13 is still when a Jew becomes obligated in keeping the commandments, yet does not become an adult Jew until they are 20. Also, in that same text of mAvot 5.21, it describes the age of 20 as a time “to pursue”, so – depending upon how one understands “to pursue” (perhaps fodder for a future conversation) – even that text acknowledges 20 as some sort of significance towards adulthood. And, who knows, perhaps this time between 13 and 20 is some sense of adolescence in Judaism….