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Days you can have a b’nai mitzvah service and why

Back to the mitzvah

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

Do bar or bat mitzvahs always have to be on Saturday morning? Aren’t they sometimes on Friday night?

—Any Given Friday

Dear Friday,

For this question, we need to jump inside of our trusty time machine and head back to a time when the world was in black-and-white and dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Here we go!

Poof!

We’ve arrived on a Saturday morning. We see a typical Jewish family. Dad and Junior are heading off to the synagogue for services, while Mom and Daughter are staying home to cook lunch — maybe some matzo ball soup, a bowl of borscht, or braised pterodactyl on rye, but whatever it is, it smells delicious!

Lucky for us, our time machine has deposited us on the day that, according to the Jewish calendar, Junior is turning 13.

On any other Saturday morning, he and his father would attend services. Maybe Dad would receive an aliyah to the Torah or get to lead part of the service. Junior never could because he was too young. But all that changes as of today. Now he’s old enough to receive these honors and take part in leading services. Since this is somewhat of a special occasion, Dad wants to make sure that nothing is left to chance, so he’ll arrange before the service starts for his son to get an aliyah, and maybe even chant the haftarah. This will be his bar mitzvah service. (And I bet Junior gets to have a little schnapps afterwards too.)

But what about when Daughter turns 13? Will she get all those things as well?

Probably not. Traditionally, that was something reserved only for males. But, girls would sometimes have a bat mitzvah service on a Friday night, when the Torah was not taken out. It was sort of a weak attempt at making an equivalent ceremony for girls.

Now let’s go back to modern, Technicolor times (and thank goodness — life before feminism was as tough as pterodactyl meat!).

Poof!

Today, in virtually all non-Orthodox synagogues, boys and girls get the same treatment and are provided identical options. All 13-year-old Jews celebrate their b’nei mitzvah and the temple recognizes that they have now reached the age of religious maturity by calling both boys and girls up to the Torah for an aliyah.

So, it stands to reason then, that we can only do that whenever the Torah is taken out for services. Therefore, you can only have a bar or bat mitzvah when we read the Torah.

Certainly, the most common time for this is Shabbat morning, which is why Saturday b’nai mitzvah services are the prevailing custom.

But we also read Torah on Shabbat afternoon, Monday and Thursday mornings, or any Jewish holiday or Rosh Chodesh (first of the Jewish month).

For instance, some families will schedule a bar mitzvah on Sunday morning when it coincides with Rosh Chodesh. One common reason for this choice is to accommodate family members who are Orthodox and would not drive or otherwise be able to attend on Shabbat morning.

So, really, all you really need for a bar mitzvah is a 13 year-old kid, a Torah, and a minivan of ten or more people to witness an occasion that may, or may not, involve a sip of schnapps.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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Reader Feedback

Mark Goodman from Florida says:
"Now let’s go back to modern, Technicolor times (and thank goodness — life before feminism was as tough as pterodactyl meat!)."

Thank goodness for the "new and improved" Judaism that has taught a generation of girls you can only be something special if you do exactly what the boys do.
Oct. 21, 2014, 12:44 pm

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