Religion Wiki

The age of majority, in Judaism, is closely connected to the onset of Puberty; in classical rabbinical literature, a person was only regarded as an adult once they had reached the estimated average age for the onset of puberty, and had visible signs of puberty (the presence of two or more pubic hairs).[1][2] The estimate made by the Talmud for of the average age for puberty, for men is 13 years of age, and for women is 12 years.[3] However, if a woman became pregnant, she was considered an adult, regardless of any other consideration.[4]

In Judaism, if there were no signs of puberty at the estimated average age for puberty, the person would be officially regarded as a child until they were 20 years old.[2] Even then, if the person still did not have visible signs of puberty, unless they were discovered to be impotent, the classical Jewish regulations would continue to regard them as a child.[2] Nevertheless, once a person reaches 35 years of age, plus one day, Judaism classes them as an adult, regardless of their genital state;[2] this principle was based on the fact that by then they would be more than halfway through the three score years and ten (70 years), which a psalm claims to be the standard lifespan for a human.[2][5]

Legal consequences

Once a boy became an adult, he became liable to punishment being imposed by Jewish courts, should he transgress in ritual or criminal matters,[2] but children were regarded as being not completely responsible for such actions;[2] for example, if a man's wife committed adultery with a 9-year-old boy, the woman would be punished, but not the boy.[2] Furthermore, classical rabbinic literature argues that a person would not be subject to divinely inflicted punishment, for anything they have done before they reached the age of twenty.[6]

Nevertheless, the Deuteronomic Code imposes the death penalty for recalcitrant male children (Hebrew: ben sorer u-moreh).[7] According to the Babylonian talmud, however, this punishment could only be inflicted while the boy was a child, or in the first three months of adulthood;[8] the Palestinian talmud allows the punishment during the first 6 months of adulthood.[9]

There were also advantages to passing the age of majority. According to Joseph Caro, a prominent rabbi of the Middle Ages, a male counts towards the quorum required for various religious acts as soon as he reaches the age of majority, but not before.[10] Children were not permitted to act as witnesses to legal transactions, nor in cases in the rabbinical courts, until they had reached the age of maturity.[11][12] Nor were children allowed to take part in business transactions, until they reached the age of maturity, although if they were older than 6, and understood what they were doing, the classical rabbis would have allowed them to dispose of movable property.[13][14]

For females, the legal implications of adulthood were somewhat complicated by splitting the change into multiple stages:

  • a ketannah (literally meaning little [one]) was any girl between the age of 3 years and that of 12 years plus one day. A ketannah was completely subject to her father's authority; he could annul her vows, and could take for himself any income she earnt.[15]
  • a na'arah (roughly meaning damsel) was any girl who was older than 12 years plus one day, by less than six months. A girl older than this would still be a na'arah if they did yet not qualify as having passed the age of majority (due, for example, to lacking the visible signs of puberty). The father of a na'arah still had authority over her,[16] but he could not annul her vows.[17]
  • a bogeret (literally meaning overripe [one]) was any girl who was older than 12 years plus one day, by more than six months, and who qualified as having passed the age of majority. A bogeret was completely independent of her father, and was essentially regarded as an adult in all respects[18]

Sexual activity, betrothal, and marriage

The marriagable age, in Judaism, is highly gender-specific. Although boys were regarded, by classical rabbinic literature, as sexual beings once they had reached 9 years of age,[2] girls were regarded as sexual beings from the age of just 3. According to the Talmud, it was permissible for an adult male to have sexual intercourse with a 3-year-old girl, if she was maritally single;[19] girls could be betrothed (Hebrew: erusin) and married (Hebrew: nissu'in) at this age.[2] By contrast, it wasn't until a male had reached the age of majority that he would be permitted to become betrothed (erusin).[20]

A ketannah could be compelled to marry against her will, although she also had the right to an subsequently annul the marriage. If she exercised this right, a decision known in Hebrew as mi'un (literally meaning refusal/denial/protest),[21] it lead to a true annulment, not a divorce; a divorce document (get) was not necessary,[22] and a ketannah who did this was not regarded by legal regulations as a divorcee, in relation to the marriage.[23] However, the Talmud did not allow the marriage to be annulled if it was the girl's first marriage, if it had been arranged by her father;[2] in earlier classical Judaism, one major faction - the House of Shammai - even argued that such annulment rights only existed during the betrothal period (erusin), and not once the actual marriage (nissu'in) had begun.[24]

In the Talmud, there is inconclusive debate about whether the na'arah should be treated like the ketannah in relation to marriage and its annulment, or whether she should have the freedom to marry as she wished, like the bogeret.[25][26]

There was little concern in historic Judaism about paedophilia, and mi'un was regarded with distaste by many rabbinic writers,[21] even in the Talmud;[27] however, in the Middle Ages, this attitude to mi'un lead many rabbis to attempt to abolish child marriage altogether.[21] Effectively, child marriage became nearly obsolete in Judaism;[21] in modern times, it is an extremely rare event, as most areas with large Jewish communities have national laws against it.


In classical Judaism, coming of age passed without comment, but in later times, it came to be marked by a formal ceremony, known as Bar Mitzvah, for boys. In modern-day Judaism, this usually takes the form of the boy being called up to say a blessing, during a synagogue service, at around the time of his birthday; this is often followed by a celebratory feast. There was no equivalent ceremony for girls, except among the Italian Jews, until the mid 19th century.

See also


  1. Niddah 52a
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Majority", a publication now in the public domain.
  3. Sanhedrin 76b
  4. Yebamot 12b
  5. Psalms 90:10
  6. Shabbat 89b
  7. Deuteronomy 21:18-21
  8. Sanhedrin (Babylonian Talmud only) 69a
  9. Sanhedrin (Palestinian Talmud only) 8:1
  10. Joseph Caro, Shulkhan 'Aruk, Orah Hayyim, 55:9
  11. Ketubot 28a
  12. Baba Kamma, 88a
  13. Gittin 59a
  14. Gittin 65a
  15. Niddah 47a
  16. Niddah 41a
  17. Niddah 45b
  18. Niddah 47a
  19. Niddah 44b
  20. Kiddushin, 50b
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia article "Mi'un", a publication now in the public domain.
  22. Yebamot 107a
  23. Yebamot 108a
  24. Yebamot 107a
  25. Kiddushin 43b
  26. Kiddushin 44a
  27. Yebamot 109a