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What a bar mitzvah service will be like

Virtual rehearsal

for The Brooklyn Paper

Many people wonder what actually happens during a bar or bat mitzvah service. How does a kid “get bar mitzvah’ed”? Do rabbis do something to make it happen? Can someone accidentally get bar mitzvah’ed if they stand too close to a cantor?

In terms of becoming a bar mitzvah, parents have already done all the heavy lifting. For the past 13 years, you’ve fed, cared for, and kept your child alive (even if, occasionally, you felt like doing otherwise) and as soon as your son reaches the magic age of 13, he is bar mitzvah. Or, if you have a daughter, bat mitzvah. It’s as simple as that. Ta-da!

Therefore, the bar mitzvah service is merely a recognition and celebration of that event. Nothing anyone does, says, sings, chants, or announces at the service changes anything or bestows some special status upon anyone.

That being said, there are a bunch of common components to b’nei mitzvah services that you’re likely to see.

First, in the vast majority of cases, the bar mitzvah service will take place on Saturday morning — the Sabbath — because it’s usually the most convenient time. Everyone is available, the kids don’t have school, and hopefully the adults aren’t working that day. Furthermore, at services on Shabbat morning, cantors and rabbis take out the Torah and read a haftarah — two key elements that occur on a typical bar mitzvah. Shabbat morning services normally last a couple of hours, and maybe even longer.

Because the purpose of the ceremony is to announce that the student is now old enough to participate fully in all aspects of the Jewish religion, the bar mitzvah kid is called up to the Torah for an aliyah, an honor reserved for adult Jews. This will be his very first time. In many synagogues, especially within the Conservative movement, he will also have learned to chant the haftarah, an excerpt from the Prophets section of the Bible. You can’t do any of that on a day when the Torah isn’t taken out, which is why Shabbat has become such a popular day for a bar mitzvah service.

Another common custom is for our hapless child to stand in front of everyone and deliver a speech of some kind, called a d’var Torah. It usually relates to the content of that week’s Torah portion or other topical subject. Public speaking is not high on most kid’s list of favorite activities, so it can be challenging to get a student to breathe, look up, or use punctuation. But, the experience will challenge a child and prepare them for future obstacles.

At some point during the service, some other people might say a few words. First, the rabbi will want to give his “charge” to the bar or bat mitzvah child. (Don’t say “charge” around parents who are waiting for that month’s credit card bill to arrive). Some congregations might let the parents make a brief speech as well and a traditional blessing that parents normally recite at this point. It expresses thanks that they aren’t responsible for their “adult” kid’s behavior anymore. It’s a nice sentiment, but probably wouldn’t hold up in juvenile court.

And finally, an interesting custom that you might see— get ready — is that everyone in the congregation throws candy at the bar mitzvah kid. The symbolism is that all those present wish to shower the child with sweetness and joy on this special day. Unfortunately, that sometimes means that all of the school friends sitting in the back row will whip a piece of candy really hard towards his head. Not surprisingly, this custom isn’t done much anymore. It’s a nice thought, though.

Just remember that none of this is required for a bar mitzvah service. All you need is a 13-year-old … and parents who have let him live that long.

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