28 May 2007

Understanding the Significance of a Bar Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah is an Aramaic term which means “son of commandment.” This is the coming-of-age that is referred to in Jewish traditions, in which a boy becomes responsible for adhering to Jewish law. It is also commonly referred to as a celebration when a boy (bar), celebrates the coming-of-age, becoming a bar mitzvah.

You have been invited to a bar mitzvah of a family friend and you do not even know what it means. Here are two basic interpretations of bar or bat mitzvah to help you understand this special Jewish tradition:

The coming-of-age

When a boy reaches the age of thirteen, he becomes a bar mitzvah. “Bar” means boy "bat" means girl and “mitzvah” means commandments. The child automatically becomes a son of commandment, meaning he is obliged to follow the commandments. Before children reach this age, they are encouraged to obey the commandments, but not really obliged. As they become bar mitzvah, they are responsible for their actions as an adult member of the Jewish community.

The celebration

Although not a religious obligation, many families celebrate the coming-of age of their sons, and call it with the same term “bar mitzvah.” This celebration entails a religious ceremony and a reception for the boy or girl’s becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. It marks the acceptance and assumption of responsibilities of being an adult member of the Jewish community.

*The religious ceremony. Historically, the celebration of bar mitzvah involved the boy’s first “aliya” which is the recitation of Torah reading blessings. This is done on the first Torah service following the boy’s 13th birthday. Recently, the celebration has become more elaborate, and involves more participation from the boy, such as reading all or some of the prayers during weekly Torah services, giving a speech about the Torah reading, and learning the traditional chant for the weekly Torah part during a weekly Shabbat or Sabbath service. During the ceremony, the family of the bar mitzvah are also often recognized during Torah services.

*The reception. After the religious celebration, a party or a reception usually follows. Some celebrate this event during the boy’s 13th birthday, instead of preceding the religious ceremony. Friends and relatives are invited to the celebration. It is only recently that parties have become as elaborate as wedding receptions. This is the part of the celebration where you give your mitzvah gift. It is also during this party that the boy, for the first time, can now say the “Birkat Hamazon” or the grace after meals. That prayer cannot be said by younger boys.

Bar mitzvah is a very remarkable stage in a young boy’s life. It is during this time, that he does not only embrace the adult responsibilities of his Jewish faith and begin to follow the commandments. It is also a time to start struggling to become a living Torah himself.

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