Bar Mitzvah Experience

The Bar Mitzvah I attended took place in a building much different than what I had been expecting. It was actually a converted house, with the kitchen and bathrooms still intact but the walls between the living room, dining area, and the front bedroom removed. There hadn’t been much of an attempt to refinish the space; instead, the walls were simply removed as much as was structurally possible, and the result was a somewhat rectangular room with a bit of an “L” at one end (where the bedroom once stood), with a dark brown and well-worn hardwood floor. Curtains covered the entrance to the kitchen and the hall way at the back of the room (a very odd hall, given that the front portion of the wall on one side had been removed where it ran alongside the bedroom, with the other side intact separating the hall from the kitchen).

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In the middle of the room, cutting it in half along its width, was a portable partition — a set of folding wooden screens a couple of shades lighter than the floor, but equally as old worn. This stopped three or four feet from the back wall, just where the hallway leading back was. I was told upon entering that this partition was to separate the men from the women, so that there would be no distractions during services. On each side of the partition (I could glimpse a little bit of the other side as I entered with my friend) rows of folding metal chairs were neatly arranged.

About half of the seats were occupied, and the services had apparently already started. My friend had explained to me as we drove over (which he also said he shouldn’t be doing as it was Saturday morning — the Sabbath or Shabbat as it is called — and driving isn’t allowed because its considered work) that the prayers would start as soon as ten men or a minyan had gathered. It was not unusual for others to come later during the three-hour morning service and join in.

The congregation was assembled facing the windows of what once were the living and dining rooms. The curtains at these windows had been pulled aside to let in the sunlight; there was no artificial light emanating from any of bulbs in the room (again, this is not allowed on Shabbat). There was a gap approximately ten feet wide between the end of the partition and this front wall, at a place close to the middle of the room where there was not a window (almost certainly where the wall used to be). Against the front wall here was what looked something like an ornate wooden wardrobe, which was opened later and revealed to be where the congregation’s two torahs were kept.

In front of this, and behind a small podium on which his prayer book rested, the Rabbi of the congregation was busy leading a call and answer response. The entire service was conducted in Hebrew. There was some English used — page numbers in the prayer book, asking people to rise or sit, calling the boy up to be bar mitvahed, and the sermons at the end — but all actual praying was done in Hebrew. Most of the congregation seemed to know exactly what to do without being told anyway, but I was grateful that there were a few others that appeared to have to wait for the Rabbi’s instruction before turning pages or coming to their feet.

The prayer books all looked relatively the same — the were hardbound, with old cardboard showing through at the frayed corners of the black and navy-blue colored fabric covering them, and each had the words “Hebrew-English Pryaer book for the Sabbath” printed in crumbling and faded gold lettering near the top of the spine, with what was presumably the Hebrew version of this printed just above it. As the title suggests, inside were payers in English and Hebrew.

I was grateful that the book had English translations, but otherwise it seemed upside down. Because Hebrew reads from right to left rather than vice versa, like English and other Western languages, the books also open the opposite way. Thus, when page one was on the right with Hebrew text, page two would be facing it on the left with the English translation. At first, I tried to follow along as best as I could, but I quickly gave this up and simply started reading the prayers, which were surprisingly repetitive yet more symbolic and poetic than the prayers I know from Christianity.

My friend explained to me afterwards that this was all part of the normal service that took place every Sabbath. He had already explained that this was a very Orthodox Jewish congregation — a Hassidic group called Chabad or the Lubavitchers, and that they didn’t do Bar Mitzvah’s in quite the same way as I had imagined from television and movies. The only essential requirement is that the bar mitzvah (the term applies to the central participants as well as to the ceremony, it literally means “son of the covenant”) go up to the podium (or bimah) to read the opening and closing prayers for reading a section of the Torah. It is only in less traditional congregations that the bar mitzvah leads the entire service, though he did give a mini-sermon on this occasion.

This is not to say that the event is not celebrated; it is considered one of the three major milestones of a Jewish man’s life (circumcision or bris and marriage being the other two — all symbols of commitment to a covenant). The celebration took place after the service had concluded, however, rather than being largely incorporated into the weekly religious ceremony as I had expected. Basically, I was present at a Shabbat service that happened to have a bar mitzvah.

There were a few very short prayers added just before and after the bar mitzvah said the necessary prayers at the reading of the Torah, but this was the extent of the change in the normal Sabbath routine, except for one other important difference. The Rabbi delivered only a very short sermon — what was called a dvar torah — at the end of the service, leaving most of this task up to the bar mitzvah. Dvar torah literally means “a word of Torah,” and is basically an explication or rumination on the portion of Torah read during the service that week. I couldn’t imagine having to write such a thing at the age of thirteen, let alone deliver it in front of a congregation of fellow worshippers. For this reason alone, I would have been impressed by the bar mitzvah’s performance, but it was even more impressive because his commentary (thankfully delivered in English) was truly insightful and inspiring. The speech delivered by the bar mitzvah was without a doubt the most profound, elucidating, and simply interesting parts of the service to me.

The bar mitzvah’s family was seated at the front of the congregation on each side, according to gender; it was clear that they had been afforded these places of honor this week because of the bar mitzvah’s achievement. The beaming look on their faces when he was at the bimah and the arm pats and smiles of congratulation given to them by other members of the congregation made their honored status that day quite clear. At the end of the bar mitzvah’s dvar torah, the children in the congregation suddenly stood up and pelted him with candy that had apparently been in their pockets all morning — a tradition that marks the end of the service and is supposed to herald a sweet life for the bar mitzvah as he steps into manhood. There was a short concluding prayer that was sung much more lustily than the others, and it was over.

There was a party with a large amount of food that got brought out of the kitchen, but this was just a celebration, and not really part of the ceremony. According to Linda Burghardt in her book the Bar and Bat Mitzvah: Joyful Ceremonies and Celebrations, the bar mitzvah (bat mitzvah or “daughter of the covenant” for girls) ceremony has taken on a much deeper significance than the simple religious initiation into he adult community that it started out as. It is also a way for adolescent Jewish boys and girls to begin to form an identity for themselves that is separate from their family and even their peers. The bar or bat mitzvah marks the central participant as an individual that is fully in charge of their own identity and future.

This book and several other sources back up the fact that the bar mitzvah really only needs to consist of the thirteen-year-old Jewish male’s recitation of the opening and closing prayers for reading one section of the Torah as part of the standard morning service on the Sabbath. As girls were not allowed to lead religious services — and still aren’t in Orthodox congregations — the concept of the bat mitzvah is less rotted in religious tradition and ceremony. There were often parties held to celebrate a girls entrance into Jewish womanhood, often held in their twelfth year as it was believed (and still is by many people, both religious and secular) that girls mature faster than boys. But these had no real religious significance, and were instead cultural and familial ways to celebrate a girl’s coming of age. Today, bar and bat mitzvah’s are conducted in much the same way in many reform and conservative congregations.

Another change that has occurred in the modern concept of the bar mitzvah beyond the addition of a major ceremony to commemorate this event, according to Judaism 101 (jewfaq.org), is the level of involvement in the service that many bar and bat mitzvahs have. The coming-of-age that the ceremony symbolizes happens automatically at a certain age (thirteen and twelve for, respectively, boy and girls). At this age, Jewish youths become responsible for obeying all the commandments of Judaism. Though following the laws of the Sabbath and of keeping kosher are highly encouraged and usually followed throughout childhood, it is at this age that children are considered morally responsible. It is only in the last century that the idea of making this responsibility to God’s laws manifest on a special day set aside for the event has come into vogue, leading to the religious leadership role many bar and bat mitzvah’s take on.

At modern bar and bat mitzvahs in non-Orthodox congregations (and some Orthodox congregations, though it would be limited to bar mitzvahs), it is considered customary for the bar/bat mitzvah to lead the entire religious service on a Sabbath morning. This includes greeting the congregation, leading all of the call and response prayers, opening the ark where the Torah is kept and carrying it through the congregation, and not only saying one set of the opening and closing prayers for reading the Torah (there are seven readings and seven recitations of the prayers every Saturday), but reading either one section or all seven sections of that week’s reading from the Torah itself. Bar mitzvahs take months of preparation; it is not unheard of for students to enroll in individual tutoring sessions for a full year before the big day comes. In such bar mitzvah’s it is also often likely that the training is the first time the students have seriously studied their religion; most Orthodox bar mitzvahs are not required to study as much specifically for the event because they have been studying torah for the past three years, and praying all their lives.

Very little of the description of a modern bar mitzvah applies to the event I witnessed. Apparently, this bar mitzvah did even more than was required by giving a dvar torah, but he certainly did far less than what most modern bar mitzvahs are described as having to go trough. This did not diminish the palpable sense of excitement or achievement in the gathering of the congregation in the slightest, however. It was obvious that the essential quality of recognizing and celebrating this individual’s acceptance into the adult religious community was present in spades, and according to the sources I encountered this is all that a bar mitzvah truly is.

There were some elements of the other trappings of a bar mitzvah in the ceremony. His aliyah (the recitation of the prayers for the Torah), for example, has been a standard (though not scripturally mandated) part of the bar mitzvah tradition for a very long time. The dvar torah is also a common touch. Modern bar mitzvah’s also often include a speech about what it means to the individual to become a full adult member other religious community. Often these are full of thanks to family and friends, and sound basically like graduation speeches. I must say, I am somewhat relieved that such a speech was not delivered at this bar mitzvah.

The most direct similarities in the descriptions of bar mitzvahs that I read and the one I attended were the basic details of the Shabbat service itself. There were changes here, to, but the basic set up of the ark, bimah, and congregation was the same. The division of genders is only practiced in Orthodox congregations, but the division of congregation and Rabbi has become standard (though this, too, is a relatively recent development in the practice of Judaism).

The biggest similarity between the descriptions and my observations, though somewhat more abstract than the details of the service, was the purpose of the event and the feelings of the family, congregation, and the bar mitzvah boy himself. Everyone involved rejoiced at the occasion; the parents and family of the bar mitzvah had watched their son grow into a man capable of explaining parts of the religions most sacred text, the congregation had earned a new member, and certainly the bar mitzvah boy reveled in his new sense of freedom and responsibility that are attendant upon adulthood. Though this adulthood is recognized only in a religious context and not by society or by practice in the boy’s family or even in the Jewish community, it is another signpost on the way to true adulthood. The pleasure that such an occasion brings does not require any study to recognize, but is etched on human faces in much the same way regardless of culture or religious background.


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