Thirteen Years Old for Mitzvos
The most explicit source relating the age of thirteen to mitzvos is the Mishnah in Avos (5:21): “Thirteen years old for mitzvos.” This comes as part of a long list of ages for children, such as five years old for studying Torah, ten for studying Mishnah, and eighteen for getting married.
An additional source indicates that the ruling of that Mishnah is a binding halachah with wide-reaching ramifications. Citing a baraisa, the Gemara states: “A person who states, ‘My son is thirteen days old and one day,’ or ‘My daughter is twelve years old and one day,’ is believed concerning vows […] but not concerning punishments.” We thus learn that the significance of the age thirteen applies to all Torah matters.
There is no explicit source in the Torah for the age of thirteen (or twelve for a girl), but there is likewise no source that delineates any other shiurim (measures), such as measures of volume or weight, that pertain to many Torah mitzvos. The different measures of the Torah are rather halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, handed down by tradition from Sinai, and this applies also to the age of thirteen and twelve (Rosh, Teshuvos 16:1; Mishnah Berurah 55:40).
Nonetheless, we mentioned at the outset an allusion to the age in the Torah’s description of thirteen-year-old Levi as a man. Elsewhere, the Torah writes that obligations of mitzvos are contingent on having the status of a man: “A man or a woman who commits any of man’s sins.”
The Maharil (51) points out that the allusion is not a concrete proof, for there is no indication that a person is not called a man at the age of twelve, and that only at thirteen he is called a man. Moreover, there is no allusion to the age of twelve for a girl, so that we certainly need to rely on the oral transmission from Sinai.
Another Mishnah (Niddah 6:11) appears to offer a different answer to the question of a child’s obligation to fulfill mitzvos, explaining that a boy or girl who has two hairs (pubic hairs: simanim) becomes obligated in all the mitzvos of the Torah.
We learn from here that two hairs are considered signs of halachic adulthood, and their appearance indicates that the bearer must keep the mitzvos.
The physical maturity indicated by simanim is also mentioned in other sources. Concerning the mitzvah of chalitzah we find (Yevamos 61b) that a minor (boy or girl) cannot be party to the mitzvah of chalitzah, but upon the appearance of simanim a girl can undergo both chalitzah and yibum (Niddah 6a).
The Rambam (Yibum 1:16) likewise rules that “a minor cannot perform chalitzah until he matures and is checked (for simanim).”
Having determined that halachic adulthood depends on the appearance of simanim, we are presented with a question: How do the respective yardsticks of age on the one hand (twelve or thirteen years old), and physical maturity on the other (the appearance of two hairs), go together?
Maturity of Age
Tosafos (Sanhedrin 69a) clarify that the halachic status of a person as child or adult depends principally on the appearance of simanim, and not on his age. Tosafos actually explain that only in later generations did the Sages establish an age for the appearance of simanim – twelve for a girl and thirteen for a boy. In past generations, a child would develop simanim at a younger age, “and so the time of halachic adulthood was far earlier.”
Tosafos (and the Tosafos Ha-Rosh) thus maintain that halachic responsibility comes with physical maturity, and not with years. According to this approach, it appears that reaching a specific age is only required in order to ensure that the simanim are true signs of adulthood, and not a shuma – meaning hairs that appear for reasons other than physical maturity, or hairs destined to drop off.
The principle of the child’s age indicating the nature of the hairs is found in the Tosefta (Niddah 6:2), as cited by the Gemara (Kiddshin 16b), which thus seems to concur that halachic adulthood depends specifically on the appearance of simanim.
This principle is stated explicitly by the Maharit (Vol. 1, no. 51, at the end), who explains that halachic adulthood is unrelated to age, and the entire role of age is in proving the reliability of the simanim: Until the age of thirteen (for a boy), we assume that the simanim are not reliable; after the age of thirteen, we assume them to be true indications of halachic adulthood.
Yet, we have already mentioned that the Rosh, among others, notes that the age of thirteen (and twelve) is a halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, according to which it obviously applies to former and later generations alike. This appears to pose a contradiction with the above statement of Tosafos (and the Tosafos Ha-Rosh) whereby the age changes over generations.
According to the interpretation of Rav Chaim of Brisk, the Rambam likewise implies that the age of thirteen is significant beyond proving the authenticity of simanim. For a child who will never produce simanim (due to a physiological defect), the Rambam writes (Ishus 2:14) that halachic adulthood depends on reaching the age of thirteen. Rav Chaim explains that for such a person, the test of adulthood is age alone (see, however, Pri Megadim, General Introduction, Vol. 2, sec. 14).
How do the two concepts of adulthood, one of age and one of physical maturity, go together?
Physical and Mental Adulthood
It appears that there are, in fact, two types of maturity, and that both are relevant for defining halachic adulthood. One type of maturity is physical maturity, which is contingent on the person’s ability to beget a child. This is elucidated by the Gemara (Sanhedrin 69a), which derives from a verse that a person is only called an ‘ish’ (man) if he is sufficiently developed to bear children.
The sign of this type of maturity is the appearance of two (pubic) hairs. Likewise, the Gemara elsewhere writes that “children are considered simanim” (Yevamos 12) – actually begetting children is also a sign of maturity.
At the same time, another Gemara (Niddah 45b) indicates that halachic adulthood is contingent on the mental capacity of the child: his wisdom and understanding. The Gemara explains that a girl reaches halachic adulthood earlier than a boy because, “Hashem gave women a degree of understanding surpassing men.”
The factor determining this type of halachic adulthood is age: thirteen years old for a boy, and twelve for a girl. Although there are a number of halachic ramifications, it appears that this type of halachic adulthood does not confer the status of ‘ish’ upon its bearer.
The full status of a gadol, a halachic adult, depends on the appearance of simanim; at the same time, the age of thirteen is important not only in establishing the veracity of the simanim, but even as an independent measure of mental maturity.
Halachos that Depend on Age
A child is not held accountable for his actions until he reaches the halachic adulthood indicated by simanim. Only an ‘ish’ is responsible for his sins (Bamidar 5:5), and the halachic status of a ‘man’ is contingent on simanim. Yet, as noted, there are a number of Torah matters for which the relevant factor is specifically age.
The Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 4:7) states that a thirteen year old boy is fit to serve as a rabbinical judge, even if he has not yet produced simanim. This poses a patent difficulty, for we know that a child who has not produced simanim is not a valid Torah witness, even though he has reached the age of thirteen (see Rashi, Bava Kama 88b), for the Torah requires a witness to be an ‘ish.’
The general rule (Niddah 69b) is that a rabbinical judge must be a valid witness, raising the question of how a thirteen year old without simanim can serve as a judge: If he is not able to give testimony, surely he should also be disqualified from serving as a dayan?
The Sema (Choshen Mishpat 7:9) answers that although with regard to bearing testimony the appearance of two hairs is required, this is only true for testimony, concerning which the Torah demands an ‘ish.’ Serving as a rabbinical judge, however, does not depend on the formal status of an ‘ish,’ but only on the child’s mental faculties: As soon as he possesses the required wisdom and discernment to serve as a judge, he can do so.
The cut-off point for this matter is the age of thirteen. Prior to the age of thirteen, a child is considered a child for all matters; beyond thirteen, for matters that do not demand the adulthood of an ‘ish,’ a child can be qualified.
A similar principle is stated in the Beis Meir (Even Ha-Ezer 17:13) concerning testimony to permit a woman to remarry (testimony that her husband died). Although for ordinary matters of testimony a child who has not produced simanim is disqualified, for this type of testimony (concerning which the Sages were more lenient), even a child who has not produced simanim is a valid witness, provided he has reached the age of thirteen.
Another halachah pertaining to a thirteen year old who has not produced simanim appears in the Rambam (Nedarim 11:4) concerning a child who is “close to being an ish” (mufla ha-samuch le-ish), whose vows are considered binding. According to the Rambam, this refers to a child who has reached the age of thirteen, but has not yet developed simanim. Unlike general laws of accountability, vows must be heeded even by a thirteen year old (or twelve year old girl) who has not produced simanim.
In a similar vein, we find an early opinion (Rav Nachshon Gaon, cited in Masaas Moshe, Pesachim 54) who rules that the commercial transactions of a thirteen year old are binding, even before he has produced simanim.
Some question this opinion (see Sefer Ha-Machria), for surely before he produces simanim a child lacks the required maturity to perform transactions. However, based on the above analysis we can explain that although simanim are required for accountability (rendering the child an ‘ish’), for matters of commerce the determining factor is mental ability rather than physical, and a thirteen year old may therefore be qualified to make transactions.
The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 235:8), however, rules that a child who has not produced simanim (even after reaching the age of thirteen) is not qualified to make financial acquisitions.
The Biur Halachah (658, s.v. lo) cites a dispute over handing a lulav to a thirteen year old – but the question concerns reliance on the assumption that he has produced simanim (see below), and not the essential question of the child’s capacity to make acquisitions.
Halachic Adulthood of a non-Jew
When does a non-Jew become a halachic adult?
Shut Tzofnas Paane’ach (101) writes that for a non-Jew the status of halachic adulthood does not depend on simanim, but only on age. Thus, for non-Jews, a thirteen year old boy and a twelve year old girl are considered adults for all halachic purposes.
Based on the foregoing analysis, this ruling is understandable, for there is no effect of the status of an ‘ish’ for a non-Jew. All that matters is that he should reach mental maturity, for which the determining age is thirteen. This ruling also emerges from the Ritva (Kesubos 11), concerning the halachah of a child who converts to Judsaism.
However, the Chasam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 317) writes that because even the age of thirteen is derived as a halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, it follows that this law, like all other laws of Sinai, does not apply to a non-Jew. Rather, the Chasam Sofer rules that concerning a non-Jew there is no specific age at which he reaches halachic adulthood, and his status rather depends on his personal level of intellectual development. A particularly intelligent non-Jew will thus reach halachic gadlus earlier than the average. A similar ruling is implied by the Tosafos Rid (Kesubos 11).
Wih regard to Torah mitzvos in general, we have seen that halachic status depends on the appearance of simanim. Nowadays the general custom is not to perform physical examinations to determine a child’s status, and we rely rather on the assumption (chazakah) estrablished by Rava (Niddah 46a): “A minor who has reached her years (twelve) does not require an examination; we assume that she has produced simanim.”
Yet, many rule that this assumption applies only to rabbinic law, and cannot be relied upon for Torah halachos. This distinction is implied by the Shulchan Aruch (Even Ha-Ezer 155:19), where Rava’s assumption is relied on for mi’un (a rabbinic law), but not for chalitzah (a Torah law). This distinction is likewise ruled by Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Yoreh De’ah 228:3), and by the Mishnah Berurah (55:31; 199:27).
Therefore, concerning rabbinic mitzvos such as reading from the Torah, we rely on the assumption, and it is permitted for a male child to read from the Torah from the age of thirteen and up.
However, with regard to Torah mitzvos such as baking matzos (Biur Halachah 460, s.v. ve’ein), making Kiddush (Biur Halachah 271, s.v. de-iskash – the Biur Halachah makes a distinction between the essential mitzvah of Kiddush and the rabbinic enactment of Kiddush over a cup of wine), and others, one may not rely on the assumption. Only after the boy has
facial hair can we be sure that he has developed simanim, and he is then qualified for all Torah purposes.