An Invitation to Understanding Bar and Bat Mitzvahs
By Allison De Meulder
Bar and bat mitzvahs are important events in young, Jewish children's lives. Bar mitzvah means "Son of the Commandment" while bat mitzvah means "Daughter of the Commandment." Both celebrations mark the time passage when a young boy or girl makes the journey into adulthood. Jewish boys usually have a bar mitzvah at the age of 13 and young girls have a bat mitzvah when they are 12. The bar or bat mitzvah celebration is a vitally important aspect of Jewish tradition and culture and preparations for the event are often made up to a year in advance. Most Jewish families view the event as a rite of passage and even if a child is against the idea of having one, most parents will insist, as it is one of the most significant events in the Jewish faith.
Bar and bat mitzvah is much more than an outward party or ceremony the way one might have a birthday party. According to Jewish tradition, the soul of a person is growing and evolving and during the time of bar and bat mitzvah, the soul has embarked upon a new level. This level of awareness is one steeped in morality, making the child more capable of serving in his or her community, family, and school in a comprehensive manner. It is after bar or bat mitzvah that the child is expected to fully develop their level of commitment to each as they prepare for their adult lives. Even though it is commonplace to hear the phrase "having" or "going" to a bar or bat mitzvah, as people describe the ceremony, it is also correct to say a person has become a bat or bar mitzvah. This is in reference to the deeper level of moral awareness that has taken place. A boy or girl that has become bar or bat mitzvah is expected to obey the commandments.
There are certain prerequisites that must be met before a child is bar or bat mitzvah. These often include age as well as the families' affiliation with a synagogue. Each family will meet with their own rabbi and temple leaders in order to establish the rules and basics for their ceremony. Most synagogues will have requirements including synagogue attendance including a certain amount of Shabbat services, education such as bar or bat mitzvah lessons and possible other educational requirements, and a commitment to learning the prayers. Each bar or bat mitzvah service may vary in length and time, depending upon the synagogue where it is held. Prayer books are recommended so that all in attendance can follow along. Those planning a bar or bat mitzvah will have the temple or ceremony portion in the synagogue as well as a party with food and gifts that occurs afterwards. Those who wish to have photographers or videographers during the temple portion of the ceremony should check with their rabbis regarding the presence of photographers and videographers and any special requirements they may have.
A bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is a big ordeal and it is common to have interfaith friends invited as well as out of town family members. There may be a need to plan for accommodations for guests coming from out of town as well as information for those who may not be accustomed to the ceremony. Some choose not to invite non-Jewish friends to the temple portion but only to the party that follows afterwards. The party is known as a great celebration with catered food, gifts, and a wonderful, joyous time to celebrate the child's transition into adulthood.
Those who attend the synagogue portion of the bar or bat mitzvah will notice the ceremony is held in Hebrew. Prayers are read and those in attendance wear traditional Jewish clothing. Men will wear the tallit, or prayer shawl. When a boy is bar mitzvah, he has reached the age where he may lead community and family based prayers. Another important fact pertaining to both bar and bat mitzvah, is that before a child reaches this stage, his or her parents are held accountable for their actions. Once a child is bar or bat mitzvah, they become accountable for their own actions.
An important aspect of bar mitzvah is reading from the Torah. The Torah is the first five books of Moses, and once bar mitzvah occurs, a boy may continue to read portions from the Torah in weekly services. There are other benefits associated with bat and bar mitzvah and both see the child as becoming a full member in the Jewish community. Many Jewish rituals, traditions, and laws now apply to those who have reached bar or bat mitzvah. There are many ways in which families choose to celebrate bar and bat mitzvah and it can quickly become a lavish and extravagant affair. It isn't uncommon to see ballrooms, country clubs, or five-star hotels booked for the purpose of bar and bat mitzvah parties.
Though there are some similarities between girls and boys and bar and bat mitzvahs, there are differences depending upon the type of synagogue one attends. Most Orthodox Jews do not allow women or girls that have reached bat mitzvah to read publicly from the Torah or lead prayer services. This is not the case with many Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Reform Jewish synagogues. In these synagogues, it is common for young girls to read the Torah and lead prayers during bat mitzvah and beyond. Some congregations may have the boy or girl recite the haftarah, or a reading from the Prophets.
Some choose to have the synagogue portion and the party or reception on different days. This is a decision that must be left to the family to decide. This could occur if there is a large number of out of town guests or non-Jewish friends that may celebrate at the reception yet not attend the temple portion. Whichever method is most effective, it is important that careful planning is given to ensure the best experience for all. Food and drink must be Kosher in order to abide by Jewish laws, traditions, and customs. One of the most important aspects to remember is that when planning a bar or bat mitzvah party or reception not to get so extravagant, that the spiritual emphasis of the event is lost. The party should not become so commercialized that the faith and moralistic purpose of the coming of age goes unnoticed.
Those attending a bar or bat mitzvah are required to bring a gift to celebrate this special occasion. A wide range of gifts is acceptable and it is important that the gift giver choose something that is appropriate as well as within their budget. It is not necessary to try to get the most expensive gift as if trying to prove something. Rather select a gift that is appropriate for any 13-year-old boy or 12-year-old girl. Gifts are not given during the synagogue or temple portion, but rather during the reception. Jewelry, savings bonds, books, DVDs, and gifts that represent the Jewish faith are all acceptable choices.