Description of a Bar Mitzvah for Non-Jewish Guests

A girl prepares to read the Haftorah at her bat mitzvah.
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So you've been invited to your first bar/bat mitzvah and, although you are appreciative, you are somewhat wary. What is it all about? How do you act and what do you do? Not to worry, it's really a simple and very joyous occasion for all.

Well, except it can be a little trying for the bar/bat mizvah, who must for the first time. will publicly display his/her skills in Hebrew or for the family who will be plotzing (about to fall apart), worrying that what will come out of their child's mouth will be anything but what is written.

1 What is a Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

The literal translation of bar/bat mitzvah is son/daughter of the commandments.

That means that a young Jewish person has become responsible to observe the commandments of the Torah -- all 613 of them.

Automatically, a boy becomes bar mitzvah at the age of 13 and a girl becomes bat mitzvah at 12 (apparently God recognized that girls mature earlier than boys). However, most Jewish children receive extensive education in Jewish customs, traditions and Torah for at least 5 years before their big day.

2 The Big Day -- What Do You Do?

Bar/bat mizvahs are held in the synagogue on Shabbat toward the end of the regular service. If you are a man invited to the service, you should always dress in a jacket and tie. Depending on the how orthodox the congregation is, women should wear a dress, skirt or nice pants suit. When you enter the synagogue, an usher will offer you a tallit (prayer shawl) and a kapot or yarmulke (head covering), if you are a man.

Since the tallit is a religious garment to remind Jews of their commitment to the Torah commandments, you should quietly tell the person that you are not Jewish. The head covering is a symbol of respect and should be put on before entering the sanctuary.

3 The Services are Underway - What Do I Do?

Since it is Shabbat, be sure to turn off all cell phones or electronic devices. You should also avoid unnecessary conversation. Do not take photographs, or write, both of which are prohibited on Shabbat. If you have been invited to an Orthodox ceremony, be prepared to sit in a separate section from your spouse, since men and women are prohibited from sitting together. Except in Orthodox synagogues, the prayer books are written in both Hebrew and English. Follow along as best you can. Be prepared to stand up and sit down frequently, since this is simply a symbol of respect. You should, however, refrain from bending your knees (dovening) when the congregation is instructed to do so because this has a religious connotation.

4 The Bar/Bat Mitzvah is Standing Up - Now What?

You will see the father (and mother, in non-Orthodox ceremonies) of the bar/bat mitzvah standing with their young adult. The first thing you will hear is a blessing recited by dad (and mom, if it is a non-Orthodox ceremony). Then, the boy/girl will take the stage (called the Bema).

He/she will read from the Haftorah, a portion of the biblical prophets that coincides with the Torah reading during the service.

You may notice some of the congregation smiling as the Haftorah is read. Since it is in Aramaic and difficult, it is easy to mispronounce and, therefore, give a different meaning to the reading. Nevertheless, whatever is actually said, the attempt is sufficient and the young man/woman is considered bar/bat mitzvah when it is completed.

5 The Ceremony is Over - Is There More?

The ceremony is not really over once the bar/bat mitzvah has read the Haftorah. He/she will usually give a short speech thanking his parents, the rabbi and cantor for their help, although there should also be a short commitment to observe the commandments of the Torah. The, the congregation, represented by its president, will give the bar/bat mitzvah a gift.

It is traditional for the congregation to throw candy at the bar/bat mitzah to end the ceremony to shower him/her with sweetness.

If this will be done, you will be given some when you enter the synagogue. While it is usually a soft candy, throw it will care. Then the parties begin with a kiddish (a small luncheon for guests, preceded by the prayer over wine).

6 It's All Over But the Shouting - Enjoy

The last part of a bar/bat mitzvah is the reception. Depending on the orthodoxy (and finances) of the parents, this can be an elaborate affair. It is similar to a birthday party, albeit with a theme and, occasionally, Justin Bieber imitators.

It will begin with a prayer (Ha-motzi), usually by the grandfather, over the challah, thanking God for the blessings of the day.

Then everyone will be invited to join in the traditional Jewish circle dance called the Hora. Don't be afraid to join; no one will be looking at your feet!

This will be followed by the chair lifting of the parents of the bar/bat mitzvah and the celebrant himself. Again, so long as you are confident that you can help hold a 100+ lb. person high over your head, feel free to participate.

7 The Gift - What Do I Give?

During the reception, it is also customary to give the bar/bat mitzvah gifts. While anything that a 12 or 13 year old might like is appropriate, most people give money. Traditionally, this is some multiple of the number 18 (Chai, which means good luck). Since the gematria, a mystical Jewish belief, gives a numerical value to each Hebrew letter and Chai is made up of the Hebrew letters Chet (ח) which has a value of 8 and Yud (י) with a value of 10, any multiple of 18 effectively wishes the recipient good luck.

Michele Rosen has been writing for more than 20 years. Her articles have appeared in the "Academy of Education, Journalism and Mass Communication Journal" and the "New Jersey League of Municipalities Magazine." She has also written numerous columns published in Gannett newspapers. Rosen holds a B.S. in industrial engineering and an M.A. in organizational communications.