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Are Bar Mitzvah Invitations Kosher?

In a responsum about bas mitzvah celebrations, Rav Ovadiah Yosef quotes an authority who raises questions about bar mitzvah invitations. In Yechaveh Da’as (2:29), Rav Yosef quotes Rav Avraham Musafya who says that the practice in his community is to celebrate both a bar and bas mitzvah with a festive day and a mitzvah meal. Rav Musafya adds that this means that someone who is invited cannot decline to attend, like a circumcision. Unpacking this surprising conclusion allows us to evaluate the widespread practice of sending formal invitations to bar mitzvah celebrations. (We will set aside the issue of bas mitzvah celebrations, which requires separate discussion.)

I. MEAL AT A BRIS

The Rema (Yoreh De’ah 265:12) writes that the custom is to have a minyan eat a meal at a bris, which constitutes a meal for a mitzvah (se’udas mitzvah). Elsewhere (Orach Chaim 551:10), the Rema rules that you may eat meat and drink wine at a bris during the Nine Days, which otherwise runs counter to the custom of mourning during that time, because the meal constitutes a se’udas mitzvah. We do not send invitations to a bris because people are required to eat there. They are obligated to accept the invitation (Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah 265:18 in the name of the Mekom Shmuel). Similarly, Rav Musafya seems to argue, people may not decline a bar mitzvah invitation.

The Gemara (Pesachim 113b) says that someone who does not sit at a mitzvah gathering is cut off from heaven (menudah la-Shamayim). Tosafos (ibid., 114a s.v. ve-ein) have a text that says “meal” rather than “gathering”and explains that it refers to someone who does not eat at a bris or the wedding of two very religious people. The Maharik (Responsa, 178) distinguishes between a sheva berachos meal and a bris meal. The former is a great mitzvah while the latter is merely a custom (see Rema, Orach Chaim 640:6; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 265:12).

Sha’arei Teshuvah (551:33) quotes Or Ne’elam who deduces from Rashi above that the meal is biblical. If the biblical rule of bris on the eighth day depends on a meal, then the meal must be biblical as well. Or Ne’elam is disagreeing with Responsa Beis Ya’akov, who believes that the meal is rabbinically requires.

Whether biblical, rabbinic or customary, the meal seems to be important. Why is it so important? According to Tosafos above, this seems to be a general rule about mitzvah meals. Presumably the reason for the severity is that refusing to eat at a se’udas mitzvah amounts to turning away from a mitzvah. Our normal desires direct us to eat. Failing to do a mitzvah that comes so naturally is an extra level of sinfulness.

Rashbatz offers a different explanation (Magen Avos 3:4). He quotes the Gemara (Pesachim 113b) and explains that failing to attend a se’udas mitzvah is problematic because those meals were accompanied with Torah discussions. It is not clear whether someone who declines to join a se’udas mitzvah should have attended and spoken or merely listened. Either way, it constitutes a refusal to engage in Torah study, whether by teaching or learning.

II. LENIENCIES

According to Tosafos, attending a se’udas mitzvah is itself a mitzvah. According to the Rashbatz, it is an opportunity to study or teach Torah. One practical difference between the two opinions is someone who fails to attend a se’udas mitzvah because he has to learn or teach Torah. I suspect that since in the end he is teaching and/or studying Torah, according to the Rashbatz he commits no transgression by declining the invitation. According to Tosafos, it should not matter. Additionally, according to the Rashbatz, a woman — who is not obligated to learn or teach Torah — would bear no guilt for declining an invitation to a se’udas mitzvah (see Lehoros Nassan 7:76:3). Similarly, someone lacking sufficient training to understand the Torah discussions would also be exempt from attending the meal. According to Tosafos, people‘s obligation is equal regardless of obligation or ability to study Torah.

Rav Nosson Gestetner (Lehoros Nassan, ibid., par. 3) explains that according to Tosafos, the meal is an extension of the mitzvah which it celebrates. Therefore, someone who is not obligated in the mitzvah would not be required to attend the meal. Since a woman is not obligated in circumcision, she may decline an invitation even according to Tosafos. Tosafos (ibid.) add that if unsavory characters attend the se’udas mitzvah, others are not obligated to join them. Therefore, since most gatherings of family and friends include at least a few people who are less than righteous, there is almost always an easy exemption from attending a se’udas mitzvah.

According to this leniency, which the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 265:12) adopts, there is no reason to refrain from inviting people to a bris or any se’udas mitzvah. If anything, a bris is less important than a wedding, as we saw above from the Maharik. If we send invitations to a wedding, certainly we can send invitations to a bris or bar mitzvah.

Additionally, it is not clear why a bar mitzvah is a se’udas mitzvah. The Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kamma 7:37) points out that we celebrate a bar mitzvah when a boy turns 13. At that point we are not certain whether physically he has reached maturity. Therefore, the celebration is based on a presumption (chazakah) and cannot be called a se’udas mitzvah. However, since the bar mitzvah gives a speech full of Torah, the learning makes the meal into a se’udas mitzvah.

Maharshal contrasts a bar mitzvah with a bris. Since the bris is an actual mitzvah, the meal is a se’udas mitzvah. Maharshal seems to say that for a bris, the meal is an extension of the mitzvah (like Tosafos). For a bar mitzvah, the meal is a fulfillment of Torah study (like Rashbatz).

According to Maharshal, we can understand why we would send bar mitzvah invitations but not bris invitations. Since attending a bar mitzvah falls under the mitzvah of learning Torah, a person can find many legitimate exemptions from the mitzvah — including learning Torah elsewhere. However, attending a bris is a mitzvah unto itself which you cannot easily turn down.

(It would seem that a wedding is similar to a bris in this respect, which raises the question why we send wedding invitations. I do not know why we distinguish between the two.)