What Happens at Bar Mitzvahs?

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What Happens at Bar Mitzvahs?
In a bar mitzvah ceremony, a boy reads a passage from the Torah in front of the synagogue. (Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

In the Jewish faith, the bar mitzvah ceremony celebrates a boy's coming of age and his obligation to obey the laws set down in the Torah, the Jewish holy book. Although the ceremony itself is not a requirement for the boy to come of age, it is viewed by many Jews as a way to connect with their heritage and tradition. In some Jewish sects, girls also undergo a similar ceremony, known as a bat mitzvah.

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History and Meaning

The term "Bar Mitzvah" literally means "son of the commandment." "Bar" means "son" in Aramaic, and "mitzvah" means "commandment" in both Aramaic and Hebrew. In Jewish tradition, young children are not expected to honour God's commandments, because they are not considered mature enough to be responsible for their actions. When a boy turns 13, however, he is considered old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong and is therefore obligated to honour the commandments of his faith.

The bar mitzvah Ceremony

On the first Shabbat, or sabbath, following the boy's 13th birthday, he attends services at the synagogue with his family. During Shabbat services, the rabbi reads a passage from the Torah to the congregation. On a boy's bar mitzvah day, he gets to go up to the bimah, the altar the Torah is read from, and read a passage with the rabbi. The boy will also read a passage from the Haftorah, the book of the Biblical prophets. Then his father will come up to the altar and recite a blessing, thanking God for giving the boy the maturity to take responsibility for his actions. A Kiddush, or ceremonial lunch, usually follows the service, with the rabbi reciting a blessing to the boy over the wine.


The reception is what most people think of when they hear the word "Bar Mitzvah." Traditionally, the reception was a small affair, consisting of the boy's immediate family, with traditional food and dancing. Today, many bar mitzvah receptions have become lavish parties, often costing hundreds or thousands of dollars. Some secular Jewish families skip the ceremony in the synagogue and simply throw a very large birthday party for their son on his mitzvah year.


Gifts are also a traditional part of the bar mitzvah, and are given at the reception rather than during the ceremony itself. Most bar mitzvah gifts today are similar to the gifts a boy would receive on his birthday: video games, iPods, or DVDs. Many traditionalists, however, prefer to give the young man a religious gift, to remind him of his religious or spiritual obligations. One traditional religious gift is tefillin: two square black leather boxes that each hold a Torah scroll. The boxes are designed to be worn on the bicep and forehead, reminding the young man that he must honour God by his thoughts and actions. Tefillin are still given as bar mitzvah gifts, although they typically are not worn and are simply kept on a shelf or dresser.

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