What is a Bar Mitzvah?

Bar mitzvah translates to “son of the commandment.” It is the coming of age for Jewish boys. This occurs when a Jewish boy turns 13. He becomes accountable for his actions and the commandments of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible.

After becoming a bar mitzvah, a Jewish boy can partake in all the Jewish rituals. His parents are released from taking responsibility for the sins that he commits against the Torah’s commandments. He can begin to lead prayers and other religious services. He also starts fasting on specific Jewish holidays such as Yom Kippur. In addition to this, once a boy becomes a bar mitzvah, he will begin to wear tefillin daily, except for Shabbat and some Jewish Holidays. Tefillin are leather boxes strapped onto the head and upper arms with biblical passages inside. As you wear tefillin, you say a prayer. This too is a mitzvah (or commandment).

In the past, barei mitzvah did not even exist. Not in the time of the Torah, Mishnah, or Talmud. It is relatively recent and theorized to have been developed in the middle ages. But, what’s for sure is that becoming a bar mitzvah is one of the most important events in a Jewish boy’s life. Often, the celebration is as extravagant as a wedding.

The ceremony is generally held on the first Shabbat (Saturday) after the boy turns 13. A bar mitzvah celebration is a formal event, so everyone dresses nicely. There is a lot of preparation that goes into the event, and sometimes the preparation starts months in advance.

The structure of a bar mitzvah celebration generally goes as follows:

First, there’s the religious ceremony. This is called the Aliyah, which translates to ascent. In the Aliyah, you read from a section of the Torah. The bar mitzvah boy is referred to here as an Oleh. Those who don’t know Hebrew train beforehand with a rabbi for the reading. This is where the months of preparation comes in. Reading from the Torah is very holy and sacred, making you closer to G-d. Jewish boys must practice tremendously to make sure that they’re reading correctly.

Next, the bar mitzvah boy gives a speech to everyone. This is usually a speech that’s connected to the Torah and also gives thanks to the celebration itself. It connects the Torah to his own experiences and demonstrates his relationship with Judaism and G-d. This can be in Hebrew or his native tongue.

Lastly, there’s the party. Here, there’s a lot of food, music, and dancing! The party is very grand, like the reception of a wedding. Similar to a wedding, the party holds less importance than the ceremony. You can expect to see a Hora at the party. This is an integral part of Israeli folk dancing where everyone dances while holding hands in a circle. During this time, the bar mitzvah boy will be raised above everyone on a chair.

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