Sample text for The ultimate bar/bat mitzvah celebration book : a guide to inspiring ceremonies and joyous festivities / Jayne Cohen and Lori Weinrott.

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The bar/bat mitzvah (plural: bnai mitzvah) celebrates a child's entry into the adult Jewish community, and by extension, the world community. Becoming an adult means taking on adult obligations, being socially responsible, and the bar/bat mitzvah marks the beginning of this process of taking responsibility for oneself and the rest of the world. It is a milestone on a lifetime journey.

The word mitzvah (plural: mitzvot) has two meanings. First, it translates as "a commandment of Jewish life." Bar means "son of" in Aramaic, and bat means "daughter" in Hebrew, so the bar or bat mitzvah is now "son or daughter of the commandment": He or she becomes responsible for fulfilling reli-

gious and social obligations. The child must now observe the fast days, and can be counted in a minyan (the group of ten adults required for Jewish communal worship), among other duties.

Becoming part of a minyan is a metaphor for joining the community: The child now assumes responsibility for thinking about others. Here we come to the second meaning of mitzvah: a kind, ethical deed. Judaism teaches that God created the world, but left it not quite finished, so that we could become God's partners in the creative process by completing the work. This creative process is called tikkun olam (literally, "the repair of the world"), and it is by performing mitzvot that we seek to restore what is damaged, to better what is imperfect in life.

According to the Talmud, "If a person resides in a town for 30 days, he becomes responsible for contributions to the soup kitchen," and the longer we live in a town, the greater is our responsibility for all of its citizens. The tradition of choosing a special mitzvah, or good deed, to perform as part of the bar/bat mitzvah is relatively new. According to some authorities, it is a recent effort to make the ritual more meaningful and relevant today. While not all children will mark their coming-of-age with a special mitzvah project, it has become increasingly popular to do so, and many synagogues, in fact, now require it as part of the process. Mitzvah projects are an integral part of all the bar/bat mitzvahs in this book. They are explained in more detail in chapter 3, "The Community: Widening the Circle," and examples of mitzvah projects are scattered throughout the text, especially in the sidebars titled "Make It a Mitzvah."


The ritual consists of a religious service and a festive meal, the seudat mitzvah, celebrating the completion of this mitzvah.

But actually, no formal ceremony is required at all. Jews are recognized as adult members of the community and become obligated to fulfill the commandments when they reach bar/bat mitzvah age, whether or not they have had a religious service.


There is no mention of the bar/bat mitzvah in the Bible. We trace its origins to a reference made centuries later in the Babylonian Talmud: "At thirteen, a boy becomes responsible for fulfilling the commandments" (Pirkei Avot 5:21). There was no ceremony to mark the event: On the day of his thirteenth birthday, a boy automatically became a bar mitzvah; that is, he was subject to the law, and his father was no longer responsible for him.

The custom of acknowledging this transition to adulthood in a formal way evolved over time, and by the thirteenth or fourteenth century, the bar mitzvah ritual included the same elements of today's ceremony: The boy read from the Torah (the sacred parchment scroll containing the Five Books of Moses, beginning with Creation and ending with the death of Moses), the Haftarah (additional readings from the Prophets and historical texts like Joshua, Judges, Kings, and others that correspond, by date, to Torah portions and to special holidays), and the father recited a blessing releasing himself from responsibility for his son. Just as today, the boy's duties varied from community to community, from reading just a part of the Torah portion to conducting most of the Saturday morning service.

Following the ceremony, the family served a celebratory meal, during which the boy delivered a short sermon, exemplifying his Jewish learning. By 1595, what had begun as a modest festive meal had become so sumptuous that a communal tax was placed on the celebration to stop such excesses. And throughout the centuries, just as today, opinion has continued to seesaw as to what that meal should be. Rabbi Yisrael HaKohen (1838-1933) wrote in the Mishnah Berurah: "It is a mitzvah to make a meal on the day one's son becomes a bar mitzvah, just like the day of his wedding." In the twentieth century, the seudat mitzvah ran the gamut from a bit of cake, a sip of schnapps, and perhaps a piece of herring to the vast extravaganzas immortalized in Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar and Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.


Beginning around the second or third centuries, as recorded in the Talmud, girls were considered responsible for fulfilling the commandments at twelve, the age that coincided with puberty for most. But many of those responsibilities centered around the family, like lighting candles on Shabbat. Women were exempted from the majority of religious obligations men were expected to perform.

The day a girl turned twelve has been acknowledged as a special occasion for generations in many different ways. In some communities, a father was called up for an aliyah on his daughter's twelfth birthday. In the seventeenth century, Rabbi Mussafya noted that the day a girl turned twelve called for a celebration and seudat mitzvah. Religious ceremonies that involved the bat mitzvah girl herself took place in France and Italy at least as far back as the mid-nineteenth century: In Marseille, girls took part in a collective bat mitzvah service; in northern Italy, the girl and her family were blessed in front of the ark on a weekday.

But the first bat mitzvah service that included reading from the Torah, as well as the Haftarah, that is, that marked the entrance of a girl into the community in the same way that a boy is welcomed, did not take place until 1922, when Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructive Judaism, "reconstructed" the ceremony for his daughter, Judith. Since that time, all but the most orthodox congregations have embraced some form of the bat mitzvah ritual.

Orthodox girls become bat mitzvah at twelve; depending on their congregation, they may acknowledge the occasion with celebrations ranging from a secular party for family and friends to reading from the Torah. Today in Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist congregations, as well as other smaller liberal denominations, girls participate in the identical ceremony boys do, usually at age thirteen.


To the ancients, thirteen was the age a boy begins the journey of self-discovery. According to Midrashic tradition, Abraham was thirteen when he rejected his father's idols, the first step on his path to discovering God; and the twin brothers Jacob and Esau were thirteen when they parted ways, embarking on their separate journeys. This was the age, scholars believed, that a child fought with the Evil Impulse and developed a conscience. And thirteen was the average age for the onset of puberty for boys, as twelve was for girls--that is, the age when they were physically capable of performing the first mitzvah: Be fruitful and multiply, bringing a child into the community.

Many Jews have questioned, however, whether this is the appropriate time for a coming-of-age ceremony in our modern world. Reform congregations even abandoned the bar mitzvah for many years, replacing it for a time with a confirmation ceremony at age sixteen or seventeen. Seventh and eighth graders, often confused and rebellious, certainly seem unprepared for starting their journeys today.

But as Rabbi Joel Goor of the Metropolitan Synagogue of New York explains, thirteen is the right year precisely because it is the most difficult age. At the brink of adolescence, a child begins to question everything: sexuality, food choices (this is a time many decide to try vegetarianism), friendships, parents, even religion itself. It is an age of transition and turbulence, as they push for independence while struggling with self-esteem.

He points out that when a child takes the bar/bat mitzvah journey seriously, he or she experiences a tremendous sense of accomplishment, "walking through the door to self-esteem. We live up to the expectations society places on us." And performing a meaningful mitzvah project as part of the process is immensely empowering for a child, reinforcing that feeling of achievement.

To illustrate his point, the rabbi talks about a boy he worked with many years ago in his former congregation in San Diego. Twelve-year-old Gary was so disruptive in class that his Hebrew school teacher expelled him. Angry and depressed, he was seeing a therapist and acting out at home and at school. The rabbi arranged for him to split his time at Hebrew school between private tutoring and working in the resource center, where technical equipment--lighting boards, visual aids like slide projectors, sound systems, and so on--for all the synagogue events were kept. The temple had an active social and community calendar, and Gary, who had exhibited real talent and creativity with the audiovisual equipment, was kept busy.

For the first time in three years, Gary began taking pride in his Hebrew studies. By the time his bar mitzvah came around, he was visibly more self-confident and relaxed. He chanted his Torah portion beautifully, and in his dvar Torah speech, he said that for him becoming a man was about fighting his demons. Smiling, he thanked the congregation for giving him the chance to win.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Bar mitzvah Handbooks, manuals, etc, Bat mitzvah Handbooks, manuals, etc