Bar/bat mitzvah Q & A

Photo by David Stuck

Photo by David Stuck

Do I have to have a bar/bat mitzvah?

If you mean, do you need to have a ceremony where you read from the Torah, give a speech and have a big party afterward, no you don’t. A boy automatically becomes a bar mitzvah – literally “son of the commandment” – when he turns 13. A girl becomes a bat mitzvah – “daughter of the commandment” – at 12, with or without a ceremony. The milestone marks moment when young Jews become obligated to perform mitzvot.

What’s the point of a bar/bat  mitzvah ceremony?

Who doesn’t love a party? The ceremony itself, usually integrated into Shabbat morning services, is an opportunity for the bar or bat mitzvah (the person, not the ceremony) to show off their Jewish religious chops. It arose during the Middle Ages when boys (only) were called to the Torah as a way of recognizing their entry into religious manhood.

The first bat mitzvah ceremony was in 1921. The bat mitzvah girl, Judith Kaplan, was the daughter of Mordecai Kaplan, a Conservative rabbi and founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.

Why does a bar/bat mitzvah read Torah and haftarah?

Since at least the Middle Ages it has been customary to call the bar mitzvah to the Torah to confirm his Jewish manhood. Then, with the son having accepted his adult responsibilities, the father said this blessing: Baruch sheptarani mei-onsho shelazeh. “Blessed is He who has freed me from responsibility for this boy.”

Today a bar or bat mitzvah will chant the blessings, all or part of that week’s Torah portion and the haftarah, or weekly section from the prophetic books. (By the way, the words “Torah” and “haftarah” are not related.)

Why is there a speech?

The d’var Torah, or speech, may have arisen in 16th century Poland, where highly capable boys demonstrated their Talmudic erudition. The practice spread to all boys, often with help from a teacher who would write the d’var for the boy to read.

Today, boys and girls are encouraged to write their own speeches, with some guidance from the rabbi. Parental fingerprints on the speech are frowned upon.

A typical speech includes thoughts on the Torah portion and what it means to the bar or bat mitzvah, some words on their mitzvah project and thanks to family and friends, usually with a reference to a younger sibling that includes the phrase, “even though s/he drives me crazy.”

Do I have to do it this way?

No, you don’t. There are no ancient rabbinic rules stating what a bar or bat mitzvah has to be like. It’s all custom and tradition.

If you don’t belong to a synagogue, you can hire an independent rabbi to facilitate your service.

If the Shabbat morning service is too long, how about a ceremony during the Shabbat afternoon service, which also has a Torah reading? So does the morning service for Rosh Chodesh, the “head of the month.” Rosh Chodesh today is celebrated as a holiday for women, a good time for a bat mitzvah.

Adventure Rabbi (adventurerabbi.org) offers bar and bat mitzvah programs including distance learning via Skype and “adventures” including peak climbing and snowshoeing in Boulder, Colo.

To seek out green alternatives, try Jews United for Justice’s “Green and Just Celebrations Guide” (jufj.org/content/green-and-just-celebrations-guide).

I’m done now, right?

If all goes well, you’re just beginning. Just as with school or any of your other activities, you can build on what you’ve learned for your bar or bat mitzvah as you grow older. A skill you learned or some piece of Jewish knowledge might stick with you and suddenly become really important later on. Don’t think of what you say in your speech as the last word on the subject. Think of it as closer to the first.

dholzel@midatlanticmedia.com
@davidholzel

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