The Meaning of Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah
“Bar mitzvah” literally means “son of the commandment,” while “bat mitzvah” means “daughter of the commandment.” What is important is the connotation: obligation and responsibility.
When a boy reaches the age of thirteen years plus one day, according to the Jewish calendar, he reaches the age of Jewish maturity and his status in the Jewish community changes – he becomes a bar mitzvah, and is “subject to the obligation to observe the commandments.” For girls in Conservative congregations, this happens at age thirteen as well, although in some circles a girl becomes a bat mitzvah at age twelve and one day.
A child is trained by his or her parents, and by the community on behalf of the parents, to understand and fulfill Judaism’s religious precepts.
Reserving a Date
Every year, the synagogue newsletter publishes a list of all member children who are turning 11 that year. If your child is turning 11 that year and is not listed, contact the synagogue office. The synagogue will contact you about the date for your child’s simcha (joyous occasion). At that time, you will be assigned a date, or you can request the date you prefer. The date selected is usually as soon after the thirteenth birthday (plus one day) as possible, because postponing the ceremony would obscure its religious significance and the demonstration of the assumption of increased responsibility as a knowledgeable and participating member of the Jewish community.
To recognize the child’s coming of age, the community honors the child. There is no unique liturgy or service for this. Rather, the bar or bat mitzvah participates in and leads parts of the typical Shabbat service.
Other arrangements for the service can be made if circumstances require, or if you wish to celebrate the simcha in Israel. Please contact the Rabbi to discuss these needs.
What the B’nai Mitzvah Do
The Service: The b’nai mitzvah typically chant the Haftarah, the reading from the book of Prophets, which usually corresponds to the Torah portion with a parallel lesson or idea. In addition, they are called to the Torah to recite the blessings for the 8th aliyah or honor.
Based on the child’s ability, he or she is encouraged to also read from the Torah and to lead the Torah service. Children may lead other parts of the service as well. Goals for this added participation will be discussed by the Rabbi and Cantor in your meetings with them, and then developed and practiced with the tutor.
Each bar and bat mitzvah is also expected to give a d’var Torah, or teaching from the day’s Torah or Haftarah reading.
The Mitzvah Project: Each bar and bat mitzvah student – independently or with family and friends – is expected to complete a mitzvah (social action) project prior to the simcha. It may be a one-time or ongoing activity.
Examples of actual projects include:
- Preparing meals for a local shelter
- Shopping for a house-bound elderly couple
- Donating books or other supplies to a hospital or shelter
- Raising a seeing-eye dog
- Volunteering in a day-care center or day camp
The Rabbi and Canter can assist in selecting a meaningful mitzvah project.
The Minyan Commitment: Community is a key part of Jewish life. To help support the Jewish community and to practice what they have learned, bar and bat mitzvah students are strongly encouraged to commit to the responsibility of participating in a minyan once per month on a regular schedule (a weekday or weekend evening or Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night).
Preparation and Tutoring
The First Meeting: 12 months prior to the simcha, set up a meeting between you (both parents, if possible), your child, and the Rabbi. During this meeting, the Rabbi will get to know your child better and review the preparation process with you. You will have the chance to raise questions and address any concerns you may have.
Tutor Assignment: At least 8 months prior to the bar/bat mitzvah date, the Cantor will assign a tutor for your child. Tutors are synagogue member adults and teenagers who have demonstrated outstanding ability in synagogue skills and will help your son or daughter prepare for their simcha. Lessons begin approximately seven months before the event, with the tutor meeting for 45 minutes to an hour each week with the student, typically at the tutor’s home. Tutors are paid by the synagogue. If you wish to use a tutor from outside the synagogue, please contact the Cantor for approval and to discuss remuneration.
- Initial training: begins with the Haftorah and Torah blessings, the system of cantillation (trop) and the Haftorah itself.
- Additional Training: Once students have mastered the initial skills, they and their tutors may establish additional goals for participation in the service. This can include chanting the maftir portion of the Torah, chanting other aliyot (sections of the Torah), leading the Torah service, and leading the Musaf service.
The D’var Torah (teaching on the Torah or Haftarah reading): At least three months prior to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah date, set up a meeting with the Rabbi to begin preparing the d’var Torah. The Rabbi will review the Haftarah or Torah portion in detail, and the student will then be assigned to prepare a talk covering:
- A historical background of the Torah reading or of the Haftarah and the prophet from whose book the Haftarah is taken,
- A summary of the Haftorah or Torah reading,
- A personal interpretation of and commentary on this material
In preparation for giving a D’var Torah the student may want to attend a Toastmasters club, also known as Hopeful Talkers, public speaking workshop especially designed for b’nai mitzvah students.
The Final Rehearsal: Approximately one month prior to the simcha, contact the Cantor for a final, individual rehearsal, which usually occurs 10-12 days before the simcha.
What the Parents Do
Besides schlepping the child to the tutor, here are some of things that you, the parents, do:
- Participants list: Prepare a list of family members who will receive honors:
- Two individuals or couples to have an aliyah (be called to the Torah to recite the blessing before and after a portion is read)
- For each Torah scroll that is taken out: One individual (man or woman) to carry the Torah from the ark around the sanctuary, and one individual to carry the Torah back to the ark at the end of the Torah service
- One individual per Torah scroll to wrap the scroll up
- Two individuals or couples to open the ark
- Optional: an individual to recite the prayer for peace (in English)
- Learn the parents’ blessings: You will recite the parents’ blessings during the service. These are not long, and should be mastered prior to the final rehearsal.
- Review the aliyah blessings: You will be called to the Torah to recite the blessings before and after the Torah reading for the seventh aliyah. Make sure that you are familiar with these Hebrew blessings.
- Tefilin: For boys, and girls if they wish – obtain a pair of kosher tefilin and make sure that the child knows how to put them on.
- Tallit: Boys and girls are expected to wear tallitot when called to the Torah or to lead the congregation in prayer. It is customary, but not required, that they have their own. Tikvat Israel does not make the presentation of the tallit a part of the Shabbat service, but a private family ceremony can be arranged in advance of the service.
- Kippot: Girls and boys are expected to wear a kippah during the service.
- Sponsor the Kiddush: Typically, the family sponsors the Kiddush after the service; a range of options are available from snacks to a sit-down lunch. The synagogue Kitchen Committee, comprised of volunteers, handles all aspects of the food preparation, set-up, and clean-up. About three months prior to your child’s simcha, contact the Kitchen Committee chair to make arrangements for the Kiddush.
- Volunteer to prepare the Kiddush: In return for the Kitchen Committee’s support, one adult from the family is asked to volunteer to help the committee at least four times prior to your child’s event.
- Tzedakah: Donations to worthy beneficiaries and organizations are a time-honored way to mark any important occasion. You are encouraged to continue the tradition. If you would like suggestions, speak with the Rabbi or Cantor.
The Simcha Meal
Volunteering in the Kitchen: The synagogue Kitchen Committee, comprised of volunteers, handles all aspects of the food preparation, set-up and clean-up. To make this work, one adult from the bar or bat mitzvah family is asked to volunteer to help the committee to prepare a Shabbat Kiddush at least four times (or six times if the family is sponsoring a sit-down luncheon) either before or after their event. About six months before your event, a member of the committee will contact you to schedule your volunteer time.
On the dates you have agreed on, arrive at the synagogue at 9:30 a.m. Kiddush preparation typically takes between one and two hours. You are also responsible for helping to clean up after the Kiddush. If, for some reason, you cannot make it on one of the dates you have set, be sure to let the Kiddush coordinator know as soon as possible so that a replacement can be identified.
The Bar or Bat Mitzvah Kiddush: Typically, the family sponsors the Kiddush after the service and a range of options are available.
About three months before your event, contact the Kitchen Committee chair to discuss Kiddush options. Then, 2-4 weeks before the event, you will be asked to provide an estimate of the number of guests attending, including congregation members you have invited and children over 5 years of age, so that the proper amount of food can be purchased.
If you are also planning an evening party, you can reserve the synagogue social hall. Contact the synagogue office for details.
Other Requirements and Expectations: The simcha is a religious event. As such, the food should be kosher, and so should the atmosphere. Modesty and restraint are hallmarks of Jewish behavior. Also, using cell phones, taking pictures, autographing a guest book or souvenir posters, handling money, and lighting candles are prohibited on Shabbat. Please make sure that your guests are informed of these synagogue rules. Tikvat Israel permits music on Shabbat, in accordance with synagogue rules but please speak with the Rabbi BEFORE signing any contract with a performer or group if your festivities are to take place during Shabbat.
Photographs: Photography is not permitted on Shabbat in the synagogue or on synagogue grounds. Please contact the office to arrange a time to take pictures in the synagogue and on the bima. NOTE: NO Torah scrolls may be taken from the ark for photographs except when the bar or bat mitzvah child is using them to practice their Torah reading. (The family is encouraged to take pictures during the final/dress rehearsal.) The Torah cannot be used as a “prop,” nor is the opened Ark to be used in the background. Pictures may be taken with the Ark doors closed.
Smoking: Smoking is not allowed on synagogue property on Shabbat.
Telephones: Telephones, including cell phones, may not be used on synagogue property on Shabbat. Please remind your guests to turn their cell phones off prior to entering the synagogue.
Carrying and Gifts: Gifts are not to be brought into the synagogue on Shabbat. Women are asked to carry small handbags, if at all. Pens, pencils, and other writing or drawing implements should be left at home.
Participation of Non-Jews: Because of changing demography in the Jewish community, Tikvat Israel has created opportunities for participation of non-Jewish relatives. Discuss your needs with the Rabbi.