Judaism For Dummies, 2nd Edition
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Bar Mitzvah means "son of the commandment," and Bat Mitzvah means "daughter of the commandment." Jewish tradition says that when girls turn 12 and boys turn 13, they take on new responsibilities in the community.

In traditional congregations, this is the point at which boys are expected to start donning tefillin and performing daily prayers, and girls are expected to learn the ways of keeping a home. Even though in today's world no one expects these teenagers to suddenly become adults after the ceremony, Jews honor this change with ritual:

  1. Boys are automatically Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and a day, and girls are Bat Mitzvah at age 12 and a day.

    The ceremony is almost always scheduled at a synagogue on the Saturday morning Torah reading that follows the child's birthday, but this varies. Because of scheduling conflicts at synagogues, some Bar/Bat Mitzvahs are set for weeks or even months after the birthday.

    The event can be held anywhere, even at home, and it doesn't require a rabbi to be present. Some families even travel to Jerusalem to perform this rite. Also, the ceremony can be any morning that the Torah is read during services (Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat).

  2. Leading up to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the boy or girl takes classes or works one on one with his or her rabbi.

    They must learn enough Hebrew to read from the Torah (and often Haftarah, too — the section from the Prophets associated with each Torah portion) and master enough Jewish history and law to understand the context of what they're reading.

  3. As the event starts, traditionally, the father is called to the Torah for an aliyah ("going up," since Torah is read from a raised portion of the synagogue) before the congregation.

    He says a blessing that thanks God for relieving him of legal responsibility for any future negative actions of his child. This blessing is almost always omitted in more liberal congregations. Instead, the parents may take the opportunity to address the child publicly, saying how proud they are of him or her.

  4. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah (the child) is called up, usually to read the final lines of the Torah portion, called the maftir, followed by the Haftarah reading.

    In many cases, especially when the boy or girl doesn't know Hebrew very well, it's sufficient to recite the blessing before and after the Torah reading, (this probably reflects the original ritual of Bar Mitzvah). Remember that reading the Torah is difficult: The text has no written vowels, and so both the pronunciation of words and their melody must be memorized. In some cases, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah just chants the Haftarah portion for the week, and sometimes members of the family are brought up to share in the Torah reading.

  5. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah follows the maftir with a d'var Torah, a short talk in which the child tells about how the readings to his or her life.

    However, today, this speech is just as often a time to thank parents and teachers, or an opportunity for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah to make a statement about who he is or what she believes in.

  6. After the child's d'var Torah, the parents (often) give a short speech to their son or daughter.

    Then the rabbi may give a short sermon and bless the Bar or Bat Mitzvah before the worship service continues.

  7. The worship service concludes, and the family of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah hosts a celebration gathering.

    Jewish tradition states that some sort of seudat mitzvah ("festive meal") is required. "

According to Jewish tradition, after children have had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, they are considered adults from a religious perspective — they are obligated to observe the commandments and may lead prayer and other religious services in the family and community. But in today's world, few adolescents are in a position to make a deep religious commitment. Therefore, most teens from non-Orthodox Jewish communities continue their study of the Torah for a few years and then make a conscious choice to become members of the Jewish community.

About This Article

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About the book authors:

Rabbi Ted Falcon, PhD, one of the pioneers of contemporary Jewish and interfaith spirituality, is a writer, teacher, and spiritual counselor in private practice. David Blatner is an award-winning author of 15 books, including Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling Universe From Infinitesimal to Infinity.

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