One thing all Jews seem to agree on is that a child’s passage into adulthood must be celebrated by the boy or girl being lifted several feet off of the ground in a chair and enthusiastically danced around. But why?
“In the Bible, Israelites use dance as a form of religious expression,” Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer writes for My Jewish Learning. “Because of the mitzvah (commandment) to celebrate a bride and groom, dancing at Jewish weddings was always encouraged.”
How did it become a custom for 12- and 13-year-old children? Writing in the Forward, Lenore Skenazy noted “the chair lift at bar mitzvahs seems to have become popularized only in the past generation or two.”
Perhaps as the cost of b’nai mitzvah began to approach that of weddings, the chair dance more easily hopped from one simcha, or celebration, to the other.
Rabbi Craig Axler, of Temple Isaiah in Howard County, says that b’nai mitzvah-to-be have confided in him their anxiety about the custom.
“But being a little afraid is really part of the reason for being lifted in the chair,” he said, noting a link between the joy of a simcha and fear.”
He explained that “the pull of the hora” — the traditional circle dance where brides, grooms, and bar and bat mitzvah kids are raised on chairs — “is that we are being stretched in all directions. Time is moving faster than we like, which means we are also speeding up the eventual end of our lives,” he said.
The dance itself likely originated in Eastern Europe, where several countries have variations of circle dances that predate what Israelis and American Jews call the hora.
Baruch Agadati, born in 1895 in what is now Moldova, is credited with choreographing today’s hora in 1924, basing it on a Romanian circle dance.
So why the chair?
Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, told the Forward about the Talmudic story of Rabbi Acha, who danced with a bride on his shoulders.
When other men asked if they could do the same, Rosenbaum told the Forward, Rabbi Acha threw in a contingency: You can do it only if, to you, “the bride is like a piece of wood.”