Bar Mitzvah

Myth: A bar mitzvah is an event.

Fact: A bar mitzvah is a person.

Myth: To become bar mitzvah, you must be called to the Torah and make a big party.

Fact: To become bar mitzvah, you must reach the age of thirteen.

The custom of making a feast is very old, but varies from community to community. In Jerusalem, the custom was to make a feast on the day the boy first put on tefillin, several months before he became thirteen. This day was called yom ha-tefillin. The custom of most Sephardic and Oriental Jews is similar.

Myth: It is a custom since Moses that the bar mitzvah boy reads the entire Torah reading in public.

Fact: The tradition that the boy is called to the Torah is a universal custom that is mentioned in the ancient Midrash. Having the boy perform the entire reading is a recent custom that seems to have arisen in 19th-century Germany.

Myth: Bar mitzvah training consists of at least one year learning how to read the Torah.

Fact: Bar mitzvah training consists of thirteen years of learning how to do mitzvahs, and why. And it continues on from there for the rest of life.

Myth: The idea that a boy becomes a man at thirteen is a holdover from agrarian times.

Fact: Establishing adulthood at thirteen is progressive to this day. Thirteen is when a boy begins to develop his own mind. The reason boys are generally considered men at around eighteen is because that is the age they can carry arms and go to war. The Jewish nation is based not on the power of battle, but on the power of the mind.

The Mitzvah of Tefillin

Myth: Wearing tefillin is a custom of Orthodox Jews.

Fact: Tefillin is something all Jews have done since the time of Moses. Tefillin have been found in archeological digs from early Roman times, closely resembling those of today. Under the influence of 18th-century European rationalism, the early fathers of the Reform movement rejected this practice. Today, as the social sciences have brought us an appreciation of the value of ritual in human development, tefillin are making a strong comeback.

Myth: Tefillin need to be worn only on the day of bar mitzvah.

Fact: Every morning, a Jew says the Shema Yisrael. Tefillin are to be worn at least at that time, excluding Shabbat and Yom Tov.

Myth: You have to go to synagogue to wear tefillin.

Fact: It is best to make yourself part of the community’s prayers. If this is not possible, tefillin can be worn in the convenience of your home, at your office, or in any available corner—as long as it is daytime.

Myth: A person shouldn’t put on tefillin until he understands what it is all about.

Fact: The best way to understand what tefillin are all about is by putting them on.

Myth: How the scrolls are written doesn’t really count.

Fact: One small error in the writing of a single letter can render the tefillin invalid. Furthermore, while it is true that tefillin are worn as a mitzvah and not as amulets, it is an accepted belief (explained in the Kabbalah) that the tefillin a person wears have an effect on his life and that of his family. Finely written scrolls inside tefillin made with care are channels for blessing and all good things.

Myth: Tefillin are the same no matter what the price.

Fact: Many tefillin sold in gift shops are often no more than fair simulations. Tefillin must be purchased from a reliable source, who can assure you that they have been checked by someone G‑d-fearing and competent in halachah. If someone offers you tefillin at a low price, some questions need to be asked.

Myth: Small tefillin are better.

Fact: Few scribes today are capable of writing small scrolls properly. Often, the scrolls inside small tefillin are well below the acceptable standard for kosher tefillin. Nevertheless, if a boy has small arms, it may be better to use tefillin that aren’t too large to stay in place.

Myth: Tefillin last many generations, as long as they are protected from the elements.

Fact: The scrolls inside the tefillin often decay with age, especially when stored without use for an extended period. They should be checked twice every seven years by a competent scribe.