Bar Mitzvah in Short

Bar mitzvah is Hebrew for “son of commandment.” When a Jewish boy turns 13, he has all the rights and obligations of a Jewish adult, including the commandments of the Torah. From that date, he will wear tefillin on a daily basis, participate in synagogue services and take his place in the Jewish community. This milestone—called a bar mitzvah—is often celebrated with a ceremony in synagogue, tefillin wearing, and parties. The celebrant may be called to the Torah, lead services, deliver a speech or otherwise demonstrate his newfound status.

The bar mitzvah is automatic, whether or not a celebration or special ceremony is held. But since becoming a bar mitzvah is such an important milestone and joyous occasion, we make a point of celebrating together with family and friends.


How Is a Bar Mitzvah Celebrated?

From time immemorial, Jewish custom has been to mark this milestone with a synagogue ceremony welcoming the bar mitzvah boy to the world of Jewish adulthood and initiating him in the opportunities and responsibilities that come along with his new status.

The Bar Mitzvah ceremony varies somewhat between communities, but the basic components remain the same. We will explore all the customary practices in the order of their importance. Follow the links at the bottom of each section for deeper insights and practical tools to help you prepare for the big day. We hope you enjoy!

The Mitzvah of Tefillin

Tradition passed down to another generation: A grandfather helps his grandson don his tefillin (Credit: Serraf Studio)
Tradition passed down to another generation: A grandfather helps his grandson don his tefillin (Credit: Serraf Studio)

What Are Tefillin?

Tefillin are black leather boxes containing parchments inscribed with the Shema and other biblical passages. The Torah commands adult Jewish men to bind the tefillin onto the head and upper arm with leather straps in fulfillment of the verse, "You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they should be for a reminder between your eyes" (Deuteronomy 6:8). Tefillin are worn during weekday morning prayers.

The tefillin are worn on the head and on the arm, close to the heart, as a reminder that we must harness our intellect, emotions and actions in the service of G‑d. Jews have lovingly and devotedly performed this mitzvah for over 3,000 years, exactly as we perform it today.

Tefillin and the Bar Mitzvah:

Although young boys are trained to keep all the mitzvahs even before their bar mitzvah, tefillin are the exception. A boy does not put on tefillin until he approaches the age of thirteen. For this reason, more than any other practice, tefillin have always served as the mark of honor that a boy receives upon his bar mitzvah. Traditionally, the purchase of tefillin for a bar mitzvah boy is regarded with special pride by his parents and grandparents.

Resources
Check out our comprehensive Tefillin section.


The Aliyah

Getting an aliyah by the Torah (Credit: Serraf Studio)
Getting an aliyah by the Torah (Credit: Serraf Studio)

When the Torah is publicly read in the synagogue (on Shabbat, Monday and Thursday mornings, holidays and fast days), congregants are called up for an aliyah: the honor of reciting one of the blessings over the Torah. Originally, the person called up (the oleh) would read a section from the Torah himself. But because these days many lack the necessary training, there is a designated "reader" who reads the section out loud, while the oleh reads along quietly (or listens).

Aliyah means "ascent," referring both to the physical ascent onto the platform where the Torah is read and to the spiritual elevation experienced at that time.

Traditionally, a boy is honored with an aliyah on the first "Torah-reading-day" that follows his thirteenth birthday. Some wait for the first Shabbat that follows the bar mitzvah.

In order to receive an aliyah, one must be familiar with the procedure of being called up to the Torah and know the blessings recited before and after the reading.

Resources
To learn more about the Synagogue check out the Synagogue Virtual Tour.
Learn how to chant the blessings of the Aliyah like a pro.


The Party

Jewish adulthood comes with many responsibilities, but it is also an enormous privilege. One would be hard-pressed to think of a more joyous occasion to celebrate than a bar mitzvah. In fact, according to some opinions, to arrange a feast in honor of a bar mitzvah is a mitzvah in itself!

Most bar mitzvah celebrations take place directly after the synagogue ceremony and include a festive meal followed by music (if it is not Shabbat) and dancing.

When choosing a date, keep in mind that if you are not able to have the party on the day of the actual Bar Mitzvah (i.e. the boy’s thirteenth Jewish birthday) you should plan an additional small celebration on that day.

One final note: It has become the norm in many communities to celebrate a bar mitzvah on the same scale as a wedding. It’s important to mention that just as the wedding party is secondary to the wedding ceremony, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony is much more important than the party, and should be the central focus of the preparations.

More on the ceremony check out The Ceremony section.


The Bar Mitzvah Speech

A Bar Mitzvah boy giving a speech (Serraf Studio)
A Bar Mitzvah boy giving a speech (Serraf Studio)

It’s customary for the bar mitzvah boy to deliver a speech, either in the synagogue after the Torah reading or at the reception that follows.

The speech usually consists of a thought from the weekly Torah portion, which the young man will apply in some way to his own life. The purpose of the speech is to encourage the bar mitzvah boy in the Jewish tradition of sharing the Torah one has learned with others.

The speech is also the perfect opportunity to announce the Mitzvah project and thank parents, family and friends.

Resources
Check out our bar mitzvah speech section for everything you'll need to create the perfect speech.


Chanting the Haftarah or Torah Portion

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In some communities it is customary for the bar mitzvah boy to chant the Torah reading, or at least one section of it. Others have the custom of honoring the bar mitzvah boy with the final aliyah, known as “Maftir,” after which he chants the haftarah--the reading from the prophets which follows the Shabbat Torah reading.

However many are of the opinion that this custom has no source, and is therefore not a requirement for the bar mitzvah ceremony. The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that in preparation for accepting "the yoke of mitzvot," the bar mitzvah boy should spend time studying the fundamentals of Judaism, including the laws regulating daily life. Preparing to read from the Torah or chant the haftarah is time consuming and not nearly as important as the above studies. It's therefore preferable to spend this precious time on more important subjects.

Resources
Check out our interactive torah trainer that will help you prepare to chant your Torah and Haftarah portion like a pro!


Mitzvah Project

The Torah contains 613 mitzvahs—rather an overwhelming prospect for the bar mitzvah boy. What better way to prepare to observe them than by taking one mitzvah and making it his own? For a “mitzvah project,” the boy researches one mitzvah in depth so that, when the time comes, he is able to observe it to the fullest.

The mitzvah project can be something to help others, such as a charity drive, which will encourage him in the Jewish tradition of chessed,(kindness), or it can be a mitzvah such as tefillin. Whatever mitzvah he chooses, he will certainly gain tremendous satisfaction from his work.

Resources
Learn more about the Mitzvah project, including tips and suggestions here.


Preparation and Study

Now that you know what a bar mitzvah entails, it’s time to start preparing!

The Right Focus

A bar mitzvah is not just a once in a lifetime event, rather it’s an important link in a continuous chain of religious and spiritual experiences. Therefore the most important aspect of the bar mitzvah is not the party or the performance, but the impact and long term effect this experience will have on the young man’s identity as a Jew. The preparations for the bar mitzvah should reflect this focus and not be dominated by less important matters.

The young man should spend the months leading up to the bar mitzvah brushing up on the how-tos of the mitzvahs, learning about the importance of observing them, and deepening his understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

Of course, it’s impossible to cover everything in a few months. The best preparation for a meaningful and fulfilling Jewish life is an education at a Jewish school, or an after-school program or Sunday Hebrew school.

But regardless of previous Jewish education, all bar mitzvah boys engage in a special course of study to prepare for the big day.

Bar Mitzvah Lessons and Choosing a Synagogue

Why choose bar mitzvah lessons?

Bar mitzvah lessons help the bar mitzvah boy gear up for the big day.

What will be taught in the lessons?

The content of the lessons will vary depending on the student's prior education, the customs of the community and the personal goals the boy and his parents may have. For some, the lessons will include reading Hebrew and learning the blessings for the aliyah, while for others they may consist of learning to chant the haftarah, or a portion of the Torah and how to lead the prayer services. The lessons usually also help with preparing a bar mitzvah speech.

How long before the bar mitzvah should we start our lessons?

The optimal preparation time can vary between six and eighteen months, depending on the Hebrew reading level of the student and whether he wants to learn to read from the Torah or chant the haftarah. The earlier the lessons start, the less pressure there will be on the bar mitzvah boy as the date approaches.

Choosing a bar mitzvah teacher and synagogue

When seeking a bar mitzvah teacher, look for someone who will focus on making this a meaningful experience for the bar mitzvah boy, in addition to preparing him technically for the performance.

If you are affiliated with a synagogue, the rabbi may be able to give the lessons himself, or may refer you to someone else. If you are not affiliated, or are seeking a bar mitzvah trainer, we have two options for you: You can search for a Chabad Rabbi in your area, or, if you prefer, check out our Live online one-on-one bar mitzvah lessons. To learn more about Chabad click here


Choosing the proper date

A boy becomes bar mitzvah on his 13th birthday on the Hebrew calendar. Make sure to schedule the celebration for the Jewish birthday, or shortly thereafter. Use our bar mitzvah date calculator to check the date.


Bar Mitzvah Gifts

Traditional gifts for the bar mitzvah boy include books with religious or educational value, religious items, gift certificates, or money. Monetary gifts in multiples of 18 are considered to be particularly auspicious and have become very common for bar mitzvahs.

As mentioned above, traditionally the parents or grandparents of the bar mitzvah boy take special pride in purchasing his first set of tefillin.

Resources
Tips and suggestions on choosing the right gift.


Post Bar Mitzvah

While the bar mitzvah ceremony is a tremendous milestone in the life of a Jewish boy, and obviously requires a great deal of study and preparation, it should never be viewed as a “graduation” from Judaism, but rather as the bright beginning of a vibrant and fulfilling Jewish life.