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According to Jewish law, all children acquire the status of ritual adulthood when they are thirteen years old. Whether or not they participate in a ceremony, at that time they take responsibility for their own moral decisions and commitments to observing the commandments (mitzvot) that are the foundation of Jewish life. In Hebrew, bar mitzvah means “son of the commandments” and bat mitzvah means “daughter of the commandments.”
But what is a bar or bat mitzvah?
The central act of the bar or bat mitzvah is the honor of getting an invitation to bless and/or read from the Torah (Five Books of Moses) during a prayer service. This honor is known as an aliyah and can happen during any prayer service during which the Torah is read (Shabbat (Friday night, Saturday morning and/or Saturday afternoon, depending on the synagogue), festivals such as the marking of each new Hebrew month, and Monday and Thursday mornings). Aliyah means “going up” in Hebrew, as in “going up to the Torah.”
In addition to this honor, the youth often writes and presents a brief talk or sermon (known as a drash (interpretation) or d’var Torah (word of Torah)) on the meaning of these particular verses of the Torah. They may also lead parts of the worship service. In this coming of age ceremony, 13-year-olds make a public statement of their Jewish identity and a pledge for a Jewish future, demonstrating a readiness to take their place among the adults of the community. For the youth, this is a moment of triumph, bringing self-conscious 13-year-olds to face a room filled with family, friends and congregants who are predisposed to shower them with compliments for their achievement.
Full of helpful advice for families starting to think about their child’s bat or bar mitzvah, Bar & Bat Mitzvah For The Interfaith Family will be a helpful primer to all families (not just interfaith!). It can also be handed out to parents of students in a religious or Hebrew school, as part of a new member packet for synagogues and JCCs, or made available on bulletin boards in your communities.