Much adieu is made out of Bar Mitzvah’s these days. It roughly corresponds to the boy’s thirteen birthday, but since the Hebrew and American calendars don’t always sync-up, his actually birthday may be as much as three or four weeks off from the date of his Bar Mitzvah ceremony.
The term Bar Mitzvah actually refers to the boy himself, not the event. The word ‘BAR’ is Aramaic for son (similar to Hebrew “Ben”) and ‘MITZVAH’ is the word for commandment. Thus, at thirteen, a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah, or Son of the Commandment, i.e. responsible for keeping the commandments or the 613 Mitzvot, divided in 365 positive commandments [things to do], and 248 negative commandments [things not do].
Historically, celebration of the Bat Miztvah for girls, at age 12, was a very recent edition. The first American Bat Miztvah did not occur until the year 1922. The girl’s Bat Mitzvah may be a much smaller event, depending on the tradition of the synagogue; as ladies don’t typically read Torah in traditional synagogues.
In a traditional family, education, or “CHINUCH” begins at age 3 when the child first learns to recognize the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
There is much preparation for Jewish boys to be ready for their Bar Mitzvahs. Usually they work with one of the following: 1) Sunday School teachers, 2) Cantor, or 3) Rabbi.
If you are from a church background, you maybe surprised that I mention “Sunday School Teachers”. Since synagogues hold services on the Sabbath, Saturday, there are often additional classes for young people held on Sunday mornings.
Obviously, the degree of preparation for a Bar Miztvah depends on the type of setting, whether it be a Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox synagogue, with Orthodox usually having more requirements. Orthodox synagogues are more likely to be associated with a Hebrew School, that doesn’t just meet Sunday, but either everyday of the week (i.e. a Jewish school), or some or all days of the week (after the student goes to a public school).
The core of the Bar Mitzvah is the boy’s reading of the Maftir and the Haftarah. The Maftir is all or part the last Torah reading, and the Haftarah is a reading from the KTUVIM (the prophetical books of the bible). If the boy is particularly talented in the area of Torah laining, or chanting the Torah, he may do the entire Torah reading. Usually the Bar Mitzvah (the boy) also has to learn a selection of prayers from the Sidur, the Jewish prayer book, and may or may not be asked to lead some of them in the service.
There are two approaches to the boy’s learning to chant Torah. The more holistic approach is to learn all the Ta’amim, the cantillation symbols, and how each one is sung, teaching him a life song skill to be able to read Torah in the future. But again, this approach takes times, and should actually begin years before the Bar Mitzvah. Too many boys just get a recording, and memorize it to the best of their ability.
Obviously, they have to learn the Hebrew alphabet, and to recognize and pronounce words. But the Torah scroll is written without vowels, so not only do they need to learn the proper tunes, they must learn the words and vocabulary to some extent. The tunes from Ashkenazi to Sephardic are quite different, and even within those groups, there are variations in tunes based on the part of the world or the tradition of individual groups.
The second major part of the Bar Mitzvah is that the boy usually gives the “D’var Torah”, or a short lesson, sermon, or commentary on the weekly Torah reading. The Torah is divided into 54 Parashot, roughly one for each week of the year, with some Shabbat’s having a double reading. There are computer programs that can help determine which week the boy should have his Bar Mitzvah, and which Torah reading he needs to prepare for. Some read it from hand-written or typed pages, and it can be dull; while others are brilliant and lucid teachings worthy of a scholar.
The following websites can be used to determine the appropriate date and Torah portion based on the boy’s birthdate on the Hebrew calendar:
Preparation often begins at least a year before. For more observant families, it’s probably less traumatic, because the boy has been studying Hebrew all along. In a less observant family, the parents may not have gone to synagogue much at all, and now, they want to “carry on the tradition” with their son, who now must learn Hebrew, prayers, and laining all in the same year.
In a traditional service, seven men are given an “Alliyah”, or are “called up” to the Torah. (or eight if we count the Maftir). This is the same word used when a person migrates to Israel, as “Aliyah” means to go up, and Israel is considered a move up from the nations of the world. Whoever reads the Maftir, also read the Haftara. Family members are often called up for the first Aliyot during a Bar Mitzvah.
In most synagogues, the Rabbi or Cantor reads the Torah reading, even though another person is called up “for the reading”. Many people don’t keep up the practice of being able to read Torah, and it can take 2 to 20 hours practice to prepare a reading. So the normal custom is that another person reads it for you.
Until the Bar Mitzvah, the parents are spiritually responsible for the boy, but from that day forward, he is responsible for his own good deeds and sins. Traditionally, he will then also be required to put on Tefilin in the morning, and prayer the three daily services. In some cultures, he wears a Talit (or Talis in the Ashkenaz pronunciation), but in other cultures only married men wears Talits.
Today, Bar Mitzvahs have often become elaborate celebrations. For example, check out the movie “Keeping Up With the Steins“. A young boy learns what the Bar Mitzvah is really about and simplifies his Bar Mitzvah party. At the beginning of the movie, his parents had were lured b peer pressur into having an outlandish event; the the boy didn’t have a clue why.
Rabbi Berel Wein observed that 50 years ago in Chicago, the boy just read Torah at the Thursday morning minyan, and they celebrated with a LaChaim (drink) and a apple cake. By contrast to today, the boy usually reads Torah on a Sabbath morning, relatives come from out of town. The family often sponsors a huge Kiddush (wine, snacks, refreshments after the service), and that is often followed by another huge party at a hotel later that day.