What To Expect When Attending A Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah
“Bar” means “son,” and “Bat” means “daughter. “Mitzvah” means “commandment.” As such, Bar/Bat Mitzvah means the “son/daughter of the commandment.” Observed in a formal ceremony in a synagogue and/or celebrated as a party, typically a lavish one, devoid of spiritual significance, the event takes place at age 13 for boys and at age 12 for girls. Bar/Bat Miztvah represents a transition from childhood to a full-fledged member of the Jewish community. As such, the adolescent is no longer a child under the protection of his/her parents, exempt from fulfilling the commandments of the Torah. Instead, he/she becomes personally responsible for his/her own Jewish identity and for actively participating in Jewish life. The young adult is now obligated to follow all the Mitzvoth. The event is a time-honored rite of passage.

Technically, a Jewish boy/girl automatically becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah on his/her 13th/12th birthday, with or without a ceremony in a synagogue. The ceremony is the public acknowledgment of the transition.  (The Bat Mitzvah celebration for girls is a relatively new but now very prevalent custom that started in 1922 in New York City. It was little known in traditional Jewish practice. The content of the Bat Mitzvah ceremony varies vastly in the various branches of Judaism and from synagogue to synagogue).

In the coming-of-age ceremony, the youth chants a passage from the Torah towards the end of the service. Called the “haftarah” (which literally translates as “concluding portion”), the chant is typically derived from the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible. The youth also gives a talk on the reading and the significance of coming of age as Jew. Following the youth’s first “aliyah,” (the honor of being called up to recite one of the blessings over the Torah), many congregations have the custom of showering the youth with candies, symbolic of the sweet blessings he/she will receive from above, while singing “Mazal tov un simon tov!” (a traditional congratulatory wish performed at happy life-cycle events such as births, weddings).

Bat/Bar Mitzvot are typically held on the Shabbat (Sabbath), but not by requirement. The current trend is to hold the ceremony on the weekdays of Monday or Thursday, when the Torah is publicly read, thereby making it easier for invited guests from afar to attend. Bar/Bat Mitzvot may also be held on a Jewish holiday that falls on a Wednesday. Typically, the ceremony is followed by a party. But when the ceremony and party are held on separate days, a small celebration typically follows the ceremony.

A gentleman invited to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah should wear a suit and tie or a sport coat and tie. Women should wear dresses; though in less conservative communities, a dressy pantsuit is permissible. In more conservative communities, women generally wear hats and would not wear pants. In essence, when the party will immediately follow the service, guests dress in a manner appropriate for both events, women, for example, wearing a bolero jacket over a spaghetti-strap garment at the service, then removing the jacket at the party. Bar/Bat Mitzvot celebrations, to the dismay of many, have increasingly become more elaborate, with after-service parties rivaling weddings in grandeur and cost. After allowing for what is required by faith, the family of the youth, the style of the invitation, and the party venue generally dictate the dress code. It is not uncommon for people attending a Bar/Bat Mitzvah to dress as if attending a wedding.

The time listed on the invitation indicates the starting-time of the weekly Sabbath service. Guests should arrive at the appointed time, though the actual Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony occurs later in the service. Jewish men (and in more liberal congregations, also Jewish women) will attend the service wearing a “tallit,” the prayer shawl, its braided fringes on each of its four corners serving as a reminder to its wearer to observe the commandments of Judaism. The wearing of the tallit is reserved for Jews, but an usher at the entrance may offer the shawl to gentiles, who may respectfully accept or politely decline the offer.

All male guests (and also women in more liberal congregations) are required to don a “kippah” (“yarmulke” in Yiddish), the small, beany-like head-covering worn by Jews, prior to entering the synagogue. Unlike the tallit, the wearing of a kippah is not a symbol of religious identification. Instead, it is an act of respect for God and the sacredness of the worship space, the way non-Muslims would be required to remove their shoes prior to entering a mosque. In some congregations, women may wear a hat or a veil.

All guests are expected to respect the sanctity of the sacred space:
-Turning off mobile devices (or adjusting settings to “vibrate”).
– In traditional settings, the taking of photographs is strictly forbidden on the Shabbat. In less conservative settings, the family of the youth typically engages the services of a photographer/videographer from whom photos/video footage may be requested/purchased.
-Smoking is not permitted on synagogue property.
-Writing or recording during the service is prohibited.
-Speaking during the service is regarded as a breach of decorum.

Jewish worship services are replete with occasions for standing and sitting for various prayers. Persons unfamiliar with the service protocol should take cues from members of the congregation and from the rabbi. Unlike the act of kneeling in a Catholic Mass, a posture with unique religious significance for that faith, standing and sitting during a Jewish religious service does not constitute any affirmation of religious belief. There are, however, instructions to bow during certain parts of the service. And because a bow or prostration is a posture with religious significance, non-Jews are free to decline the request and should either sit or stand, consistent with the congregation, during those segments of the service.

Cash is a traditional Bar/Bat Mitzvah gift. Cash gifts for the event are traditionally given in multiples of 18, such as $18, $36, $54, etc., the rationale being that 18 is the numerical value of the “hay” and “yud,” which comprise “chai,” the Hebrew word for “life.” Gifts in increments of 18 symbolize the grantor’s wish for a long and prosperous life for the recipient. But cash is not the only appropriate gift: Considering that the event is spiritual in origin, Hebrew faith-themed gifts are also appropriate. A silk tallit or a hand-carved Torah-pointer would be considered special. And a gift such as the planting of a tree in Israel (at the cost of $18 per tree) is a gift with symbolic importance, though moderately priced.

In general, Bar/Bat Mitzvah gifts are presented at the party, not at the service that precedes it. Some branches of Judaism, such as Orthodox Judaism, prohibit the carrying of gifts into the synagogue, or the carrying of gifts on the Shabbat. If the Bar/Bat Mitzvah takes place on the Shabbat—Friday night to Saturday before sundown—it is best to have the gift delivered before or after the Shabbat.

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