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What to Expect at a Bar Mitzvah

What to Expect at a Bar Mitzvah

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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)

The bar mitzvah ceremony celebrates a Jewish boy’s 13th birthday (on the Hebrew calendar) and his elevation to adult status in Judaism. This celebration can take many forms. Here is what you might expect at a bar mitzvah celebration, but bear in mind that many elements of the celebration are flexible.

(Note: The parallel celebration for girls is called a bat mitzvah, and takes place when a girl turns 12. Here we will focus specifically on the bar mitzvah.)

Saturday Morning Services

Photo not taken on Shabbat (Credit: Serraf Studio)
Photo not taken on Shabbat (Credit: Serraf Studio)

The most common place and time for a bar mitzvah celebration is in the synagogue during the Shabbat morning services. The services include the reading of the Torah, during which the young celebrant may chant from the Torah. At the conclusion of the prayers, guests generally regroup in the social hall, where they enjoy a festive reception.

(This kind of bar mitzvah celebration is almost identical to an aufruf, during which a groom is celebrated on the Shabbat prior to his wedding. If you are invited one of those, check out What to Expect at an Aufruf, and you’ll be good to go.)

Weekday Mornings

If the bar mitzvah is on a morning other than Shabbat or a Jewish holiday, chances are that the bar mitzvah boy and his male Jewish guests over the age of 13 will be putting on tefillin, two black boxes that are strapped on the head and the arm for the duration of the prayer services.

If you have been invited to a morning bar mitzvah and you have tefillin, bring them along. If not, the rabbi or another friendly local will probably be happy to help you into a pair. You can learn more about tefillin at What Are Tefillin?

If the bar mitzvah celebration is on Monday, Thursday or Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the Jewish month), the Torah will be read as part of the service, like on Shabbat, and the celebrant will probably either read from the Torah scroll or be called to make blessings over the Torah.

Just Receptions

 (Credit: Serraf Studio)
(Credit: Serraf Studio)

In addition to the morning prayer service, there is often a reception at a convenient time, like on a Sunday morning or a weekday evening. A reception will typically not include formal prayers. Instead, you can expect to hear the bar mitzvah celebrant, his parents and others share words of inspiration on the significance of the milestone while you munch on tasty food.

Note that these are just some of the more common bar mitzvah formats. Every person is different, and every bar mitzvah is different. But that’s OK. The invitation tells you where you need to be when, and that’s the most important thing.

What Should I Wear?

Bar mitzvah attire is usually formal. For ladies, pick a modest skirt and top or dress—something you’d wear to a business meeting, or even a notch dressier.

For guys, dig out a pair of conservative slacks and a button-down shirt (and a jacket and tie if you’re that kind of guy). Of course, you will want to have your head covered by a kipah. If you don’t have your own, there’s a good chance there will be some spares near the entrance to the synagogue (if that is where it will be held). If you’re married, you’ll also want to be wearing a tallit (prayer shawl that is draped over the shoulders), and tefillin if the celebration is not on Shabbat). Read up on the tallit here.

Do I Need to Bring a Gift?

It is customary to give a gift to a bar mitzvah boy. However, you do not need to bring the gift with you to the celebration. Indeed, you should not do so if the celebration is on Shabbat. Instead, include a check or gift card with your reply card, or just drop off your gift at a time that works for you.

You can pretty much give anything you think will bring joy to a 13 year old boy, but bear in mind that meaningful gifts have the advantage of being, well, meaningful. So a good book on Judaism may not be that exciting now, but it may serve him much better down the line than the latest gizmo that’s going to be obsolete in a few months.

What Will Be Served?

There is no traditional fare for bar mitzvahs. However, you can expect that the spread will contain either meat or dairy, but not both, since kosher dietary laws forbid the mixing of milk and meat. So if the menu contains meat, don’t expect to have milk for your coffee.

(Important note: Just because the food is being served at a bar mitzvah, you cannot be sure that the venue is kosher. So if the bar mitzvah is not being held at an Orthodox synagogue, make sure to find out if there is a mashgiach [kosher supervisor] and ascertain for yourself that the food is kosher before partaking.)

Learn more at What Is Kosher?

Will There Be Dancing?

The Bar Mitzvah boy is commonly picked up in a chair (Maitri Shah Photography)
The Bar Mitzvah boy is commonly picked up in a chair (Maitri Shah Photography)

Yes, chances are there will be dancing. It is fairly common for the celebrant to be danced around the bimah (table from which the Torah is read) inside the sanctuary. The dancers may join hands to form a big circle, or just bounce around in a loose ring. You don’t need to dance if you don’t want to, but it can be fun, and no one expects you to know any fancy dance steps.

If the bar mitzvah is not on Shabbat, there may be music at the reception. Traditional Jewish dances feature circles of dancers, often following a dance-step called the “horah.” Traditionally, men and women dance separately. If you’ve never experienced this kind of dancing before, you may be pleasantly surprised by the innocent and pure joy that it elicits.

Another common feature of this celebration is when the bar mitzvah boy is hoisted up on a chair and held aloft by the dancers.

Read: Why Do Jews Dance in Circles?

What Do I Say?

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

The appropriate congratulatory wish to bestow upon the bar mitzvah boy, his family and just about anyone else you meet at the bar mitzvah is mazal tov,” which literally means “good luck.” More on the meaning of mazal tov.

Final Note

Chances are that during the course of the evening the bar mitzvah boy will declare his commitment to take the lessons he has learned and apply them to his future life. This commitment is something we can all take to heart. Channel the sincerity of the bar mitzvah boy and the joy felt by all celebrants into your life. How to do this? By adding a mitzvah to your routine: daily tefillin wearing, weekly Shabbat celebrations or regular Torah study are all ways to keep that Jewish inspiration alive and pumping long into the future.

If you are planning a bar mitzvah, or if you just want to learn more, visit Bar Mitzvah 101.

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
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