Wednesday, September 3, 2008

FAQ:What's a Bar Mitzvah?

Question: What's a bar mitzvah and what do I wear to one? What do I give?

Answer: I'm glad you asked. I just returned from a wonderful bar mitzvah in St. Louis. Cousin Susie, whose son Nathan was bar mitzvahed, gave me permission to reprint this description of the event from the program:
Bar Mitzvah literally means "son of the commandment." Technically, the term refers to the child who is coming of age. In accordance with the laws of Judaism, the age of thirteen is when a young man is considered old enough to be responsible for following the mitzvot, or commandments of Jewish life. The bar mitzvah ceremony formally marks the beginning of adulthood along with the right to take part in leading religious services.
Every week, Jewish congregations around the world read the identical Torah passages. In this way, Nathan is linked beyond those of us here in St. Louis at Temple Israel congregation to the entire world's community of Jewish people.
The reading of the Torah is quite challenging, as no vowels, punctuation or musical notes are actually written in the Torah. Following his reading of the Torah, Nathan will read from the Haftorah, commentary from the prophets related to the theme of his Torah portion, and then present his Bar Mitzvah address to the congregation.

A bar mitzvah, which occurs on or around the boy's thirteenth birthday, usually consists of a synagogue service and then a big party. My friend Diana points out that at age thirteen a boy is not always at his most suave and confident, so having his friends and family fuss over him as though he's even bigger than Michael Phelps probably gives him a wonderful boost (not to mention all the great gifts he gets). The parties can get as elaborate as Jewish weddings--which is to say, wow--and for a hilarious look at some over-the-top bar mitzvahs you must rent the DVD Keeping Up with the Steins. It's a hoot! and you'll learn a lot.
The Reform service which we attended lasted about an hour and a half. (Services at Conservative and Orthodox congregations might be longer--I just don't remember.) Having studied Hebrew and Jewish history and tradition since he was nine, Nathan was well prepared to take his part in the service. He chanted the Hebrew scripture reading and also a passage from the prophets, and then he gave a speech in English. People wore the same type of clothing as you would find in church. Some men wore skullcaps ("kippot" and "yarmulke" are the names for them) but it was not required. There were light refreshments outside the sanctuary afterwards, and then we all went back to the hotel to get dolled up for the party, where there is usually lots of drinking, eating, and dancing. What gift do you give? On the east coast, where I live, we give money tucked in a bar mitzvah card. We give somewhat less than we'd give at a wedding, but still a lot. Hopefully you'll know someone else who's invited so you can ask, as the recommended amounts probably vary from region to region, and of course they vary depending on how close your relationship is to the family of the bar or bat mitzvah person. Plus, as you probably know, some guests have a formula for giving based partly on how much we're guessing the family is spending on the celebration. (Is this tacky? I guess the idea is that we're all helping to pay for our suppers.)
The equivalent ceremony for girls, called the bat mitzvah, occurs in the girl's twelfth year, when she too is called to read the Torah before the congregation (except for Orthodox girls; women attend Orthodox services but do not read in front of the congregation). All Jewish girls, whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, are considered bat mitzvahed when they reach the appropriate age, and often their families give a celebratory party similar to one for a bar mitzvah.
The Hebrew words "Mazel Tov!" mean "Congratulations," and you will hear them said a lot. You can say them too!

1 comment:

Cassandra said...

Hi Marilyn,
Thanks for visiting my blog.

I just thought I would mention that when we give money, my husband and I always give denominations of 18 (chai). Usually $180, but could be less or more depending on our relationship.

Perhaps you can write a future post on chai, since aside from the number the word/idea comes up in many contexts (toasts, jewelry, Fiddler on the Roof...).