Becoming a Bar (for a boy) or Bat (for a daughter) Mitzvah is one of the most significant and popular Jewish lifecycle events. Literally Bar/Bat Mitzvah means, "son or daughter of the commandments." The origin of this celebration at the age of thirteen is a teaching in the section of the Rabbinic text from the 3rd century - the Mishnah. In the tractate Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers 5:21) we learn that at the age of thirteen, young men and women become responsible for discovering the role of mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) in their lives.
The idea of "mitzvah" is a complicated one. While many translate it as "good deed," it is more accurately translated as "commandment." But even this misses the depth of the word. Perhaps "mitzvah" is best understood as an "act of commandment and connection." It is through mitzvot that Jews make meaningful connections to God, the world and other human beings. As young men and women become Bar/Bat Mitzvah we celebrate another opportunity to bring God into the world through the performance of mitzvot.
What to Expect
If you've never been to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration before you're in for a treat. While every Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration is unique there are some elements that are common amongst synagogues, temples and other Jewish spiritual communities.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations take place in the context of Jewish worship services. While traditional Jews pray three times a day, Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are generally held only when the Torah, the scroll of the Five Books of Moses, is read. This includes Monday and Thursday mornings, Saturday afternoon and, most commonly, Saturday morning. (In some Reform synagogues the Torah is read on Friday nights.)
Jewish prayer is like a spiritual workout. We spend a little time warming up; we work up a sweat striving to reach our target heart rate; and then we cool down before concluding. Morning services begin with liturgical selections that help us get into a prayerful mood while, at the same time, praising God. These come primarily from the book of Psalms. Psalms such as Ashrei (Psalm 145) and HalleluYah (Psalm 150) get our spiritual juices flowing.
The call to worship, known as the Barchu, gathers the community together in prayer and introduces the main part of the service called Shacharit. The Shacharitservice consists of the well-known prayer - the Sh'ma and the private, standing prayer - the Amidah. During the Amidah, it isn't uncommon to find regular prayer-ers swaying back and forth and praying quietly to themselves. These customs help many Jews to focus and find kavanah (intention, direction.)
Following the Amidah, we turn to the reading of the Torah (the scroll on the Five Books of Moses.) The reading of the Torah is the centerpiece of the service and the highlight of any Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration. It is common for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrant to participate actively in the Torah service by chanting from the Torah, having an aliyah and chanting the Haftarah (prophetic selection.) It is also a widespread custom for the celebrant to offer some words of Torah in the form of a teaching called a d'var Torah.
Following the Torah service, in more traditional communities, there will be a short concluding service called the Musaf service, which includes anotherAmidah. In more liberal communities the concluding service may consist of only a few short prayers. Almost all Jewish services conclude with a prayer calledKaddish Yatom, the mourners' kaddish. It is during this prayer that we affirm our belief in God's goodness and express our concern and condolences to those who are in mourning.
Dressing for the Occassion
In many communities, Jews wear special clothing for their spiritual workouts. While traditionally reserved only for men - liberal, egalitarian communities almost universally invite men and women to don these sacred garments.
Covering one's head is a sign of respect in the Jewish tradition. We use head coverings called Yarmulkes or, in Hebrew, kippot. Kippot come in all colors and sizes. For those follicly challenged amongst us - the larger thekippah, the better.
A tallit is a four-cornered religious prayer shawl worn during morning services. On each of the four corners are tzitzit (fringes.) These fringes, tied in a prescribed fashion, remind Jews of the mitzvot (acts of commandment and connection between people and God.)
Having an Honor
While the service is most often led by a rabbi, cantor, shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) or the Bar/Bat Mitzvah him or herself, there are many opportunities for participation by members of the congregation. Often guests at b'nei mitzvah (plural ofbar/bat mitzvah) are honored with participating in theTorah service. You may be invited to carry the Torah, have an aliyah (going up and reciting the blessings before and after the Torah reading,) lifting the Torah, dressing the Torah or perhaps opening and closing the Aron (Ark).
The video below will walk you though each step of taking part in the Torah service.