Traditionally, Judaism recognises a child's maturation into adulthood by proclaiming a boy to be a bar mitzvah and a girl, a bat mitzvah. These transitions, meaning "son" or "daughter of the commandment," take place on the 13th birthday for boys and 12th birthday for girls. By accepting an adult role in the community and an adult relationship to the sacred commandments, each Bat (or Bar) Mitzvah accepts responsibility for making wise and mature decisions based on God's law.
The most significant aspect of the bat mitzvah process is the participation in a Shabbat (or Sabbath) service at synagogue. At the service that follows the child's 12th birthday, she will be asked to recite a blessing from the Torah. Some bat mitzvahs will learn much larger portions of the Shabbat service, leading the congregation in a prayer or reciting traditional chants or the portion of the service known as haftarah. Bat Mitzvahs are also expected to make a speech during the Shabbat declaring their new status as a "woman" in the community. Tradition dictates that every Jewish girl becomes a bat mitzvah at age 12, regardless of whether she participates in a ceremony at synagogue.
Just as with other milestone birthday celebrations (such as Sweet 16 parties), families choose how elaborate or simple their daughter's bat mitzvah celebration will be. Some families treat it with the same degree of planning and investment of time and money as they would a wedding celebration, sending "Save the Date" cards and inviting many, many people to a formal affair. They rent a special party venue, such as a hotel ballroom, and hire a band and catering services. This celebration, traditionally, includes a candle lighting ceremony, which is led by the bat mitzvah and honours deceased and living family members.
The Jewish Orthodox community does not include women in the Shabbat services given at synagogue. Because of this, traditionally, girls turning 12 in this community are recognised as bat mitzvahs, but do not participate in a service, as the bar mitzvahs do. In the past, Orthodox bat mitzvahs were not acknowledged in any way comparable to the bar mitzvahs, but Orthodox families are beginning to honour their daughters with parties and special gifts on their 12th birthdays, signifying the importance of this transition. In some Orthodox communities, women hold special services during which they read from the Torah, and in these special circumstances, some bat mitzvahs are initiated into this practice.
Bat Mitzvah Terms
If you're attending a bat mitzvah ceremony or party and you're not familiar with Jewish customs, you might want to familiarise yourself with a few terms. You'll be expected to wear a kippah or yarmulke (a thin, round skullcap) as a sign of respect, if you're a man. The most sacred part of the Bible is called the Torah, and these five books of Moses will be read from during a bat mitzvah service. A person called to recite a blessing before the congregation is called an aliyah. The bat mitzvah will offer a lesson or speech during the ceremony called the d'var Torah. The post-ceremony party might be referred to as the simcha. Don't forget to wish the bat mitzvah "Mazel Tov," which means "Good luck."