When do you become an adult?

Embroidered tallit bag
Tallit bag my mom made for my bar mitzvah ceremony

Today marks the 39th anniversary of my bar mitzvah ceremony. Technically, I became a bar mitzvah ten months earlier when I turned 13. When boys reach the age of bar mitzvah (and girls reach the age of bat mitzvah at 12), they are considered adults in the Jewish community. They receive all the rights and are expected to fulfill all the responsibilities of being an adult Jew.

The ceremony (which is not simply a way to crowdfund a first car) enables these newly adult Jews to demonstrate that they can fulfill their responsibilities. They show that they can understand Hebrew, read from the Torah, and lead the congregation in prayer.

For me, the sense of accomplishment that came from fulfilling these responsibilities, especially when I had to catch up in Hebrew school after my parents’ separation, was more valuable and lasting than any gift I received. It was the first time I saw myself as an adult.

What does it mean to become an adult, and when do you truly become one?

In the United States and most other countries, children become adults when they turn 18. Just like the bar or bat mitzvah, this happens automatically on their birthday. They don’t need a special ceremony for this to happen.

Just like the bar and bat mitzvah, turning 18 grants people all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. They can vote, get a job without a work permit, get credit cards, and buy tobacco products (and alcohol in some areas). It also makes them eligible for jury duty and military service where required, and it makes them legally responsible for their actions. When someone is “tried as an adult” for a felony, he or she can go to prison if convicted. Eighteen is a magical number, but it can be good or bad magic depending on your actions.

Your actions determine the type of adult you are.

Just as the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony gives Jews the opportunity to demonstrate that they can fulfill their responsibilities, adulthood gives us many opportunities to demonstrate that we are truly adults.

Have you demonstrated that you have enough education to function in society by earning a high school diploma? Do you obey the law? Can you hold a job and earn a living for yourself and your family? Are you a responsible parent who makes sure your children get everything they need? Before you vote, do you learn about the issues and make an informed choice? Do you get involved in your community? Do you exercise maturity and self-control? Can you sacrifice your personal desires for the good of your family and community?

Some children demonstrate this level of maturity long before they become of age. Some adults never act responsible, even if they manage to live long enough to reach their sixties and seventies.

There are two measures of adulthood: one you get simply as a function of your age, and one you demonstrate through your actions. It’s the difference between simply becoming a bar or bat mitzvah and going through the work to prepare and carry out the ceremony. We recognize the ceremony more because someone proved that he or she is worthy of being called an adult.

The tests of maturity aren’t limited to a single ceremony. They continue throughout our lives. When we demonstrate our maturity and responsibility, we truly become an adult, regardless of our age.