1. Religion & Spirituality
Send to a Friend via Email

What Is a Bar Mitzvah?

The Bar Mitzvah Ceremony and Celebration

By Peter Pelaia

What Is a Bar Mitzvah?

Bar Mitzvah Boy and Family

Getty Images / Rob Melnychuk

Bar Mitzvah literally translates as "son of commandment." The word "bar" means "son" in Aramaic, which was the commonly spoken vernacular language of the Jewish people (and much of the Middle East) from around 500 B.C.E. to 400 C.E. The word "mitzvah" is Hebrew for "commandment." The term "bar mitzvah" refers to two things:

  • First, when a boy comes of age at 13-years-old he has become a "bar mitzvah" and is recognized by Jewish tradition as having the same rights as a full grown man. A boy who has become a Bar Mitzvah is now morally and ethically responsible for his decisions and actions.
  • The term "bar mitzvah" also refers to the religious ceremony that accompanies a boy becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Often a celebratory party will follow the ceremony and that party is also called a bar mitzvah.

This article is about the religious ceremony and party referred to as a bar mitzvah. For more information about becoming bar mitzvah please read: "What Does It Mean to 'Become Bar Mitzvah?'"

It is important to note that the ceremony and celebration are not required by Jewish custom. Rather, a Jewish boy automatically becomes a Bar Mitzvah at 13-years-old. Although the specifics of the ceremony and party will vary widely depending on which movement (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc.) the family is a member of below are the basics of a Bar Mitzvah.

The Ceremony

While a special religious service or ceremony is not required for a boy to become a Bar Mitzvah, over the centuries a greater and greater emphasis has been placed on the ceremony as a right of passage of sorts. The earliest observance marking this point in a boy's life was simply his first aliyah, where he would be called up to recite the Torah reading blessings at the first Torah service after his 13th birthday.

In modern practice, the bar mitzvah ceremony usually requires much more preparation and participation on the part of the boy, who will work with a Rabbi and/or Cantor for months (or years) studying for the event. While the exact role he plays in the service will vary between the different Jewish movements and synagogues it usually involves some or all of the elements below:

  • Leading specific prayers or the entire service during a Shabbat service or, less commonly, weekday religious service.
  • Reading the weekly Torah portion during a Shabbat service or, less commonly, weekday religious service. Often the boy will learn and use the traditional chant for the reading.
  • Reading the weekly Haftarah portion during a Shabbat service or, less commonly, weekday religious service. Often the boy will learn and use the traditional chant for the reading.
  • Giving a speech about the Torah and/or Haftarah reading.
  • Completing a tzedakah (charity) project leading up to the ceremony to raise money or donations for a charity of the bar mitzvah’s choice.

The family of the Bar Mitzvah is often honored and recognized during the service with an aliyah or multiple aliyahs. It has also become the custom in many synagogues for the Torah to be passed from grandfather to father to the Bar Mitzvah, symbolizing the passing down of the obligation to engage in the study of Torah and Judaism.

While the bar mitzvah ceremony is a milestone life-cycle event in the life of a Jewish boy and is the culmination of years of study, it is actually not the end of a boy's Jewish education. It simply marks the beginning of a lifetime of Jewish learning, study and participation in the Jewish community.

Celebration and Party

The tradition of following the religious bar mitzvah ceremony with a celebration or even a lavish party is a recent one. As a major life-cycle event, it is understandable that modern Jews enjoy celebrating the occasion and have incorporated the same sorts of celebratory elements as those that accompany other major life-cycle events, like a wedding. But just like the wedding ceremony is much more central than the wedding party, it is important to remember that the party is simply the celebration marking the religious implications of becoming a Bar Mitzvah.

Gift Ideas

Gifts are commonly given to a Bar Mitzvah (usually after the ceremony, at the party or meal). Gift ideas for a bar mitzvah can be found in this About article: Bar and Bat Mitzvah Gifts.

Any present appropriate for a 13-year-old boy's birthday can be given, it does not need to have special religious implications. Cash is commonly given as a bar mitzvah gift as well. It has become the practice of many families to donate a portion of any monetary gift to a charity of the Bar Mitzvah's choosing, with the remainder often being added to the child's college fund or contributing to any further Jewish education programs he may attend.

  1. About.com
  2. Religion & Spirituality
  3. Judaism
  4. Life Events
  5. What Is a Bar Mitzvah?

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.