A Lighthearted Bar Mitzvah Guide
||Bar mitzvah boy, Bar Mitzvah boy,
put away your childish toys.
From Dan to Beersheva the Prophets cry,
it's time to be a man.
The ceremony that we will witness today marks the passage of a Jewish girl or boy from childhood into adulthood. From this day on he is ethically, morally responsible for his behavior; literally a Bar (Son) Mitzvah (Commandment) a Son of the Commandments or a Bat Mitzvah, Daughter of the Commandments. Contrary to the common wisdom, our Bible is jammed with 603 commandments in addition to the familiar ten. The youth undertakes a heavy obligation.
We realize that some of our friends, both Jewish and Christian, may never have attended a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, therefore, we offer this guide to the morning's activities. It's full of tradition - like raisins in a fresh baked challah; still the foundation of our Judeo-Christian culture.
All ancient cultures used some sort of maturity rite to assess the worthiness of the adolescent for membership in the adult community. In Judaism, this test is spiritual and intellectual. Hopefully, our brief explanation of today's ceremony will allow you to enjoy the service as well as the reception that follows.
Nothing the Bar Mitzvah student has accomplished so far in his thirteen years of life has demanded the hard work and dedication this task has required; unless his name was Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart, who gave up soccer for symphonies at four years of age. It's stressful; it's heavy neural traffic for a young man. Occasionally, he'll call his teacher the Friday before the big day. "Teacher, I've got kinda feverish feeling and I'll bet I gotta temperature so I won't be at the Synagogue Saturday. Would you just bring the presents over? I'll pay the rental fee for the truck. And tell Rabbi Grossberg thanks for his help, too." Bar Mitzvah teachers, experienced in crisis therapy, handle such emergencies with ease.
Like they say, timing is everything and unfortunately Bar Mitzvah time is adolescent time in the human life cycle. Boys are beginning to notice that half of their classmates wear skirts and have really long hair. Their heroes are Barry Bonds, Shaq O'Neil, and Peyton Manning, not Moses, Elijah and Jeremiah.
Stress is everywhere. Mama is worried, too; about a) the child's performance, b) The caterers performance, and c) whether Aunt Hannah will bring her six married daughters - with kids - who delight in pillaging a Kiddush table.
Pop goes around muttering, "I'll bet even Elijah never had a Bar Mitzvah like this".
And he's right. There's no record whatsoever of Elijah's folks laying out appetizers and expensive delicacies for a flock of friends and relatives. Nowhere in our entire Bible, nor in the rabbinic literature, is there a commandment to mortgage the family home for an evening of food and drink.
The Bar Mitzvah boy's performance and the subsequent celebration is not a commandment, only a custom. It developed slowly like the pickling of cucumbers.
The Bar and Bat Mitzvah tradition, like most traditions, grew in meaning and ceremony as the years went by. Some proud parent, a couple of centuries ago, must have said to his friends, "Hey, young Binyomin is 13 tomorrow. Come by the house, have a piece of cake, and shake his hand". That was the simple beginning. Then some papa, shiny-faced with pride, must have brought the child to Synagogue so he could display his prodigal son to all of his friends. And since this admirable young man was at services on the Sabbath, when the Torah was read, why not have him read a section or two from the holy scroll. And after the Torah reading, why not dazzle the congregation with his erudition. Let him say a few words. And since by the time Binyomin had finished displaying his erudition it was lunchtime, why not feed the multitudes with cold cuts and pickles. That's how it began.
Today, the good news is that friends and relatives will shower the Bar Mitzvah boy with trinkets unless he sings his Torah section to the tune of the Notre Dame fight song. The bad news is that had he approached the age of 13, say a few hundred years ago, he'd have received a free pass to adulthood in the Jewish community. No speeches, no Torah reading. Nothing.
The worst of all times was the 30's and 40's of this century when all the Bar Mitzvah requirements were in force, but generosity was not yet au courant. It was the fountain pen era and if your speech was sparkling and your Haftorah rang the rafters, you got 27 fountain pens; that none of your friends wanted to swap for baseball gloves because the fountain pen market was as soft as a soggy sponge cake.
The Bar Mitzvah ceremony, The Rites of Maturity for a Jewish child, usually takes place within the setting of the normal Saturday morning Shabbos service. These services consist of traditional prayers that go back many centuries. The highlight of the Saturday ceremony - the highlight of every service where the Torah, the 5 Books of Moses, is read - is the removal of the Sacred Scroll from its draped alcove. Are we not called the People of the Book?
The Torah is carried by the Rabbi or a congregation member around the aisles of the synagogue as the worshipers sing a joyful song of praise and thanksgiving. Congregants crowd around "The Law" to kiss it, to touch it with their prayer shawl or their prayer book. This exuberant procession is also a sign that the Bar Mitzvahee, who has thus far been in the wings, is ready for the spotlight.
After the appropriate blessings our honoree will read directly from the Torah scroll. Not a simple task even to a student of Hebrew - because the ancient lettering has no vowels. ('t 'nt 'sy - that's the English for "it ain't easy" - but without vowels.) Furthermore, it must be sung to a time-honored tune.
Besides the Torah chanting, the child - after a blessing - sings a passage from the Haftorah; the prophetic section of our bible. The Haftorah is the home of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos and company, who spoke for justice and care for the downtrodden before it was politically popular.
The Bar Mitzvah boy follows his Haftorah performance with another tuneful blessing. The challenge of the day, you see, is musical as well as scholarly.
Then finally, after deciphering and reciting passages from a 3,500 year old language and delivering the equivalent of three Arias from IL Trovatore, you'd think our young student could take a bow. Not yet. He must present an exegesis on the Torah and Haftorah he has just chanted.
When he completes this final task there's no applause, but everybody grins and relaxes. They bombard the Bar Mitzvah boy with candy, which younger members of the Synagogue and a few adult candyheads retrieve. When the Bar Mitzvah child finishes his speech, the normal services are resumed.
Judaic Mysteries (Questions Our Guests May Ask)
Why do they wear that funny little hat that won't really keep your head warm?
Answer: Jews wear a head covering in Synagogue: a "yarmulke", a corruption of the Hebrew words, "nearness to the King". The head covering reminds us that over our head reigns the King of heaven and earth. The only ruler who taxes us with good deeds - not dollars.
Why are the parents grinning like they had a shaker of martinis for breakfast?
Answer: They are proud of their son or daughter. It's called the Jewish Parents- Bar Mitzvah day-smile. A common facial phenomenon at Bar Mitzvahs, unless the child forgets every word of his Haftorah reading.
It's not cold in here. Why are they all wearing those silky, fringed shawls?
Answer: The Bible tells us to wear ritual fringes to remind us of our ethical responsibilities; which, of course, is the basis for the old string around the finger trick.
Why have the services lasted so long?
Answer: This is an unanswerable, age old mystery that stumped even Solomon. Half the Jewish worshipers ask that very question every Saturday morning around 11:30 - and still, there's 60 more pages of prayer. It's one of our liturgical weaknesses.
Why the rain of candy at the end? Are there that many Jewish dentists?
Answer: Jews have always mingled learning and sweetness: Books and candy - Torah and honey. Our sages put a dab of honey on a page or section of Torah and placed an infant's finger on the honey. Learning and pleasure, a connection we want to put into the juvenile mind.
Why have they separated the sexes; no wonder their intermarriage rate is up.
Answer: Yes, in an orthodox service men and women are separately seated. Our sages knew the human heart. They knew it's difficult to connect with the King of Creation when your eyes are drawn to the blonde thing, fourth from the left in the third row. Earthly thoughts are a distraction when you're trying to transcend earthly ties and bonds.
Luckily, we live in Themepark, USA, where Judaism flourishes because the theme is freedom. We don't have to whisper our Haftorah. We don't need a sentry by the Synagogue door on the lookout for the mob and the hoodlums. The Bar Mitzvah boys that preceded this one in Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, and other dark times, studied in stealth and recited their lessons in fear. But our honoree can shout to the heavens.
Our Passover hagadah tells us that "Now we are slaves in Egypt, next year may we be free men". Well, today we are free - free to sing the Torah and Haftorah with passion, like David the sweet singer of Israel. Dimly surrounding our honoree are the less fortunate Bar Mitzvah children of other lands and other times. He sings for them, too. Bless him.
Moses, Ruth, and King Solomon; as well as Elijah and his prophetic brethren prospered and preached without cell phones, cameras, and camcorders. On this holy Sabbath we'll try to do the same. The performance must live only in our memory.