Inherent in religions throughout the globe are rites of passage that mark life’s major milestones. In the Jewish tradition, the bar or bat mitzvah, when a boy or girl enters adulthood, is one of them. It is a tradition handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. 

Many customs surround a bar or bat mitzvah, most of which will undoubtedly feel unfamiliar to those not raised or educated in the Jewish faith. Fear not! If you are planning a bar or bat mitzvah for a loved one or simply planning to attend one, please read on. We hope to provide you with a better understanding of this extraordinary Jewish tradition. 

What Is a Bar or Bat Mitzvah?

A bar or bat mitzvah literally translates to son or daughter of the commandments. By helping to lead the Shabbat or Sabbath service, the bar or bat mitzvah marks when he or she reaches Jewish adulthood, responsible for fulfilling the religious and moral commandments of Judaism.

The religious ceremony is similar across most synagogues, from Reform to Orthodox and everything in between. A bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl will read a parsha or portion from the Torah and the Haftorah, both in Hebrew and then share his or her interpretation of what was read in the D’Var Torah. The parsha that is read on that particular day is the same parsha that is read in synagogues worldwide.

The Synagogue

If the bar or bat mitzvah takes place at a synagogue, the service will be held in the sanctuary. Often located in the center behind the pulpit is the holy ark, which holds the Torah scrolls. Above the ark is the ner tamid, the eternal light that burns continually as a symbol of divine presence.

The Torah is the Jewish people’s most holy possession, containing writings that are the foundation of all Jewish traditions. Each Torah contains the text from the Five Books of Moses handwritten by scribes on parchment as it has been for centuries.

If the family doesn’t have an affiliation with a specific temple, and the child was tutored to either participate in or run the entire service, a sacred space can be created for the bar or bat mitzvah at the venue where the celebration will occur.

Mitzvah Etiquette

It is often customary that men cover their heads with a kippah or yarmulke and are sometimes asked to wear a tallis or prayer shawl during the service. For women, this is usually optional. A tallis is worn by Jewish men and women over 13. It has 613 fringed knots to represent the Torah’s 613 commandments. Tallit and kippot are available at the entrance to the sanctuary.

The dress code for services varies from synagogue to synagogue, although you can’t go wrong with a jacket and tie or a simple dress. In more observant temples, women may be asked to cover their shoulders. If you are unsure and it is unclear on your invitation or mitzvah website, ask your host what is appropriate.

There are no reserved seats in the synagogue, although it is customary for the family of honor to sit in the front row. In an orthodox synagogue, women and men may sit separately.

It is common to hear Shabbat Shalom as a greeting among those attending the service. It is a wish for a peaceful sabbath.

Gifts are generally not given at the bar or bat mitzvah service. Instead, gift-giving takes place at the party.

The Service

There are several parts to a Shabbat service; all but one will be found in a prayer book or siddur. The Torah reading is found in the larger prayer book called the Chumash.

The morning begins with a brief preliminary service and meditative blessings. The part of the service in which the Torah is read is divided into seven sections. The bar or bat mitzvah will read from the Torah directly and recite the last section. The bar or bat mitzvah has been studying this parsha and maftir for months, if not years, so as to chant it flawlessly. 

Before and after the Torah readings, the Torah is lifted and carried around the synagogue by the bar or bat mitzvah so that all can touch it with a tallis or prayer book as a sign of respect.

When the Torah reading is over, candy is often distributed to be tossed at the bar or bat mitzvah in celebration of his or her accomplishment. Several prayers will follow to conclude the service.

You may notice people standing and sitting, then standing and sitting again, throughout the service. The rabbi or cantor will usually indicate when it is appropriate to sit or stand. If unsure, watch the other congregants. If you are unable to stand, it is not necessary to do so.

Mitzvah Honors

It is considered a great honor to participate in the Torah service by being called for an aliyah, to recite blessings before and after each section. Other honors include opening and closing the holy ark, carrying the Torah, and lifting and dressing it. These are commonly reserved for close family members or friends.

A kiddush or luncheon, hosted by the mitzvah family, is often served to guests and congregants directly following the service. Before the meal begins, you will hear the bar or bat mitzvah give the blessing over the wine and the bread. 

The many traditions of a mitzvah do vary depending on the customs of the synagogue or the family –  no two are alike!  If you’re interested in learning more, you’ll find more insights about what happens at a bar mitzvah in our accompanying blog. 

Are you planning a bar or bat mitzvah for your child or a loved one? At Jodi Raphael Events, you’ll find a talented team experienced in the religious and celebratory details of this important rite of passage. 

Contact us today; let’s discuss which bat/bar mitzvah ideas, themes, and venues will work best for your family.

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