Mention the word Bar Mitzvah to the average almost-thirteen-year-old Jewish boy and they will probably wax lyrical about the great party they're planning to have. But, in Jewish terms anyway, there's actually no concept of "having a Bar Mitzvah". The term simply refers to the fact that at the start of the fourteenth year of a boy's life - namely, the day of his thirteenth Hebrew birthday - he becomes a Bar Mitzvah, a "son of the commandments." He is required to keep the all the mitzvot pertaining to Jewish men, such as being counted towards a minyan and laying tefillin. No ceremony of any kind is really necessary at all.
Despite this, there is the long-established tradition of a Bar Mitzvah boy being called up to the Torah for the first time on the Shabbat after his thirteenth Hebrew birthday. The Bar Mitzvah feast also has a strong historical basis. The story is told in the Talmud, in Kiddushin 31A, of Rabbi Yosef, a blind sage. At the time, the compilers of the Talmud were arguing over whether a blind man is obligated to keep mitzvot or not, and also whether one who observes them where not obligated is greater then one who does so because he has been commanded to. When the halachic decision was reached that not only is there more merit in keeping the Torah when you are commanded to do so, but that a blind man is also equally duty-bound, Rabbi Yosef held a large party. From here, we have the tradition of the "seudat mitzvah" for the Bar Mitzvah boy - as he too has just come into the position of being "obligated" in mitzvot.
Finally, for all those boys trembling at the thought of giving their Bar Mitzvah speech - blame for this ordeal lies with the yeshiva students of 17th century Poland. Back then it was popular for highly gifted Bar Mitzvah boys to display the breadth of their Talmudic knowledge in a drasha (discourse). Not to be outdone, less capable students began to ask their teachers to prepare speeches for them, to be learnt by heart. The tradition caught on and still prevails today.
For more information please download 'Bar and Bat Mitzvah Syllabus' below.