Dear Cantor Matt,
Why does the bar mitzvah service have to be so long? My back aches after two or three hours.
— Okay, it’s really my tuchus that gets numb
Would you believe that cantors get paid by the hour?
Believe it or not, your rabbi and cantor are probably doing their very best to get through the service in an efficient and timely manner. They are trying to balance the comfort and attention span of the congregation with the holiness and tradition of the prayers. In addition, I would guess that the service is already somewhat abbreviated — there are different spots that can be shortened or even skipped over if you’re short on time.
Let’s break it all down and see why a typical Saturday morning bar mitzvah can go on for so long.
The introductory prayers
Chances are, here’s where your temple has the most opportunity to cut things a bit. This part of the service is mostly prelude to the heavier stuff that comes later. Think of all these prayers as an athletic warm-up before embarking on a difficult race or event. The Jewish tradition is actually being pretty realistic by realizing that you can’t just plunk a sleepy-eyed congregant down in a temple and expect him to immediately start some serious praying. It’s much better to ease into it a little bit. And on a more practical note, it delays the main parts of the service (that is, the stuff that features the bar or bat mitzvah kid) for all of the people who arrive late. You know, like your cousin Harvey who’s never walked in the door less than a half hour late for anything in his life.
The morning service
Isn’t the whole thing the morning service? In fact, only a certain portion of the morning service is actually called the “morning service.” These pages are filled with a lot of familiar prayers like the Barchu, the Shema, and the Amidah.
The Torah service
This is the main course for a typical bar mitzvah service. (Even Harvey should be here by now.) This is when we have most of the honors, like opening the ark and getting called up to the Torah. The bar or bat mitzvah student will likely be reading from the Torah and chanting that week’s haftarah. Interestingly, it’s also the part of the service that is most likely to be shortened a bit.
Traditionally, one whole portion, or parsha, of the Torah is read each Shabbat. Depending on the week, that can be quite long. Many synagogues have adopted a system whereby a different third of the parsha is read each year, so that after each 3-year cycle, the whole Torah is read in completion. That makes it tremendously easier on everyone — the kid who gets to learn a shorter reading and the congregants who, as a result, don’t have to sit quite as long.
The musaf, or additional service
This section is not recited in every synagogue because it has to do with cows and goats that were brought as sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem. A lot of congregants would rather wait until the reception before thinking about lamb chops or prime rib.
And one final note …
Anything unfamiliar seems to go on a lot longer when you don’t know what to expect or what everything means around you. Even a little advanced preparation will add to your enjoyment of the service.
Now, doesn’t your tuchus feel better already?
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
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